We hadn’t thought to buy flowers. Our trip was an impromptu decision, taken at the breakfast table, and here it was, a holiday. So while my father called my Aunt Doris to ask how to find his brother’s grave in the cemetery at Greene, I rummaged through the cupboard where old terracotta pots and gardening tools were stored, and pulled out three plant baskets with plastic liners and blocks of green Oasis foam. I poured water into the containers and left it to soak into the foam, and then went out the front door and cut an armful of branches from the rose-colored honeysuckle bush by the steps. Back on the round oak table, my father and I cut the branches into smaller pieces, filling the baskets with fragrant arching blooms, and added some yellow daisy-like chrysanthemums that he had given me when I arrived.
Dad made his way down the stairs, helped by his cane, and we loaded ourselves and the flowers into the car. It wasn’t yet 9:00 am, warm and dry; the sky a brilliant, cloudless blue.
"Where first?” I asked, putting the key in the ignition.
He thought for a minute. “Afton, I
guess. Then we’ll work our way back to Greene and over the hill to
“I don’t think Mom would have done this. It wasn’t really her style,” I remarked, as we drove out the lake road past the fire pond where two geese had been incubating their nest.
“No geese,” my father observed, looking out the window.
“Maybe not.” He shrugged and turned to look at me. “I’ve never done it before.”
“Neither have I,” I said. But the truth was that he and I were the ones to do it; we were the ones who were sentimental, and who felt, deep down, an urge to observe certain rituals.
My paternal grandparents retired to the town of Afton, New York, at the southern end of Chenango County, in the late 1950s, and
although they eventually left that house and lived for many years in a church
retirement home in Binghamton, Afton is where they are buried. My grandfather was a Methodist minister and the
family of four children moved every two or three years to the little towns of
New York and northern Pennsylvania. A carved sign from that Afton house hangs over my father’s woodworking bench: “Dun Movin’.”
When I was a child, we’d go to Afton to visit them several times a year, and I always got carsick on the winding roads that start when you leave Rt 12 after Oxford and head over the hills to Coventryville. Dad had always been at the wheel. Until today, I’d never driven this way myself, and I’d never seen where my grandparents were buried.
“We got them the house in Afton because it was one town where he’d never been a minister,” my father was explaining, as I searched the hills for something that looked familiar. Nothing did, except that it was all typical Chenango County. We had already driven nearly the whole length of the county. We passed small farms in the open, rolling, beautiful countryside, and many houses, more of them dilapidated than not; it was a long ways here between towns of any significant size. There were a lot of American flags stuck on lawns and porches, and decorating soldiers’ graves in the little rural cemeteries with their wrought-iron or wooden fences, out in the middle of nowhere, but we also passed one ramshackle house with boarded-over windows and a big sign, painted in blue letters on plywood out by the road, that read “End Fascist Rule.” There was an old yellow school bus next to the house, completely covered with spray-painted graffiti about the “fascist pigs” and “US out of Iraq.”
We came down onto a flat, and my father gestured at a white ranch house on the right. "Charlie Wayman," he said, singing the name the way he always had. Charlie had been a good salesman for my father and grandfather's real estate agency, covering this part of the county. I looked at the house; now this did feel familiar. "Mom and I waited a lot of hours for you in that driveway," I said. "And every Christmas, he and his wife used to give me homemade popcorn balls wrapped in colored cellophane."
"Really?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said as we drove past. "It's the kind of thing a kid would remember."
The road to the cemetery was on the outskirts of Afton. I had wanted to go by my grandparents’ old house first, but when we started to pull into town, we saw cars parked sideways, blocking traffic, and flagmen in jeans and short-sleeved shirts standing next to them. “Oh-oh,” I said. “It looks like they’re getting ready for a parade.”
“Well, we don’t want to get caught in that.Turn around,” said my father, who hates waiting in lines of any kind.
The cemetery, at the end of a road lined with old trees, was well-kept and full of cedars and clear pink, wild azaleas - “pinxters” - in full bloom, more lovely than any cultivated variety. “Where should I go?” I asked my father. There were several roads in the cemetery; we were at the entrance, near a white shed where a man in a blue shirt and red suspenders was washing his pick-up truck.
“Damned if I know,” my father said. “I haven’t been here for, I don’t know, ten or fifteen years. Maybe this guy can tell us.” I got out while my father rolled down the window and said, “Rev. Charles and Mabel Adams.”
The man wiped his hands and straightened up to look at us. I
had gotten out of the car and walked over to where he was. He consulted a map
that was hanging on the wall of the shed. “No Adams here,” he said. “I’ll look in my book.”
He retrieved a three-ring binder from the side of the
building, and ran his finger down a list. “Ok,” he said, “Rev Charles?
“It says here No. 51.” He led me back to the map in the shed. No 51 showed the name “Ayles.” I relayed the information to my father. He was already nodding. “It’s up there, in the second row,” he said, pointing, “I remember now. They’re on the back side of the stone, or some damn thing; somebody probably gave them a free plot so their names aren’t on the front.”
I thanked the custodian and got back in the care and drove slowly until we came to “Ayles;” we parked and my father slowly got out of the car. “Here they are,” I said, reading the other side of the stone with difficulty; the letters weren’t deeply cut. I went back to the car, opened the trunk and took out one basket of flowers. In the ground near the bottom of the stone was a metal cross incised with the words “United Methodist minister”; beside it was a freshly-planted red geranium seedling with one bloom. “Aunt Doris has been here,” I said to my father, pointing. He nodded, and walked from one side of the grave to the other. I put the basket of flowers on the other side of the cross from the geranium; I took a picture. “Well,” my father said, tapping the ground with his cane, “they were good parents.” We got back in the car.
This is part one of several parts.