I’ll be buried in the backwoods of Parksley, Virginia.
I’ve known that for most of my life. It became apparent early on, when I’d walk down the dirt road with Grannie to the cemetery, surrounded by the ancestral grass of great aunts, uncles, and cousins from generations past. My mother used to tell me she’d buy us plots next to each other. Close to my gramps, who was the first person I ever knew to die.
I always liked the cemetery.
I was young when Grannie taught me how to take care of people’s memories. She wasn’t religious. I never saw her head bowed in prayer or a bible in her hands, but she tended to the spirits of everyone she had ever lost. Shortly after Gramps died, she taught me the art of grave keeping, namely how to make the ornamental flower arrangements that sat on top of gravestones. My tiny hands shoved the hard plastic of the faux flower stems into the Styrofoam. Often too far. Sometimes not far enough. Grannie would fill in the gaps, teaching me about what made a flower arrangement well-balanced and elegant.
In the end, the stained rectangular lump of foam became an immortal bouquet. Something fit for a headstone. Grannie’s handmade cemetery saddle.
We would carry these offerings to the graveyard, walking among family in a multi-plane reunion of sorts—us above and them below. Grannie would tell me about all the people she knew there—and she knew most of them. If not family, the family of friends or neighbors.
Parksley was the kind of place most people didn’t get too far away from. You’d live a lifetime there until everyone and their children knew your face and whose people you were.
Grannie knew more names than most and had more ties than many. A sister buried young. A brother lost in the war. A grandmother we only had a single photo of. A husband we all still wept for.
I’d follow behind her, traversing my way among the graves, touching the smooth marble and limestone surfaces, wondering at the sight of faded names and years that seemed impossibly far into the past. How was anyone alive in 1873? My 6-year-old concerns.
We placed the cemetery saddles on headstones. Grannie always gave the best ones to Gramps. She’d make sure they sat perfectly centered, plastic petals vibrant and respectable, and then take the old ones to be outfitted with new flowers in an endless cycle. No one in Parksley took care of them like Grannie did. Our family had flowers as fresh as the newly buried.
A morbid thing to be proud of.
I was born in a Brooklyn apartment in 1995. But that doesn’t feel accurate. It feels like I was born in a trailer near the woods in Parksley. Surrounded by a dark forest on one side and overhanging trees that scraped the windshields of cars that drove slowly along the only dirt road leading to my home. That’s where my childhood is, and the oldest known roots I have first sprouted. That’s where the branches of my lineage trace back until my family’s last name becomes the last name of a white English settler.
That’s the last place where I loved the earth beneath my feet.
Young and built like a beanstalk, I wandered the open expanse of the yard, climbing the lowest hanging branches of the honey locust tree, hanging upside down to feel the weight of my bo-bos swinging on the end of my braids. I made games out of the trees and friends out of the ladybugs that crawled across their leaves. I pulled garden weeds up to watch the worms wiggle underneath. I filled the pockets of every dusty pair of overalls and denim shorts I owned with rocks. I used to pluck thin branches from the honey locust tree. I’d run my thumb and index finger along the stems, removing all the tiny leaves in one swift motion, building piles of green confetti that my mother would later have to pick out of my meticulously plaited hair.
I knew the earth as I knew my own front yard.
I was 8 years old when I learned that what I thought was Down South—the place that I called home—wasn’t south enough. My mother and grandmother had always been prone to fighting, but never in my short life had I seen them fight with the veracity that they did on what was otherwise an ordinary spring day in 2004. The trailer had never seemed small to me before then, but as my mother and grandmother screamed in each other’s faces words I could never repeat about things I was far too young to understand, the walls suddenly felt too close and tight to contain their anger. I became invisible, despite the desperate way I pushed against each of them, sobbing and begging for them to stop. They couldn’t see or feel me through their rage.
When this latest conflict pushed my mother south, away I went with her. It was a cramped car ride to Georgia, sitting in the backseat with everything that had ever mattered to me. Ripped out by my roots when I was little more than a sapling.
The first place we stayed was with a woman named Anne—my mother’s friend and, like my mother, a single parent with a daughter just my age. I had brief hopes of having gained a sister figure, but instead I was offered an inferiority complex. In that house, I was second-tier to Anne’s own child, and both of them seemed to want me to know it. Anne took us to the pool once while my mother was at work. It wasn’t a particularly memorable day until her daughter cut her foot on a broken piece of glass. In a rush to tend to the wound, they both left the pool without me. Anne’s car peeled away from the curb just before my hand reached the door handle to get inside. It was there, standing on the sidewalk as they drove off, the little girl laughing at me from the back window, that I knew Georgia and its people would never be home.
Nothing that far south felt permanent. Shuffling from one house to the next among friends of friends of my mother’s—invited, but never truly welcome—it became clear I wasn’t made for Georgia soil. In Virginia, I had been a dirt-filled growing thing, like every other weed and flower. But down there, out of my habitat, nothing took root. Maybe it was the soil, or the sunlight, or the air. Maybe it was the people who looked at me like an interloper. Some sort of invasive species. Maybe I could only grow in the ancestral grass.
Or maybe I just wasn’t much of a peach.
I developed an affinity for the indoors, never straying far from whatever corner of whoever’s home felt safest. Down in Georgia, the touch of every blade of grass itched and stung like fire ants. The whisper of leaves sent shivers down my spine. The bzzzz of anything with wings sent me into hysterics.
I was wilting.
My mother noticed.
My grandmother took me back up. Alone. Up past Parksley. This time, far enough north that I never really call it south. I was in 5th grade and knew words like “Mid-Atlantic.”
I was transplanted to Delaware with all the care and preparation of potting a wildflower. Delaware soil didn’t seem any more nourishing than Georgia’s, but at least now I had the room to thrive indoors, beyond small corners, reconnected with the older generations of my family. I finished my growing up in the shade and shelter of the suburbs, safe in confinement. By the time I finished 12th grade, I knew terms like “plant domestication,” and I hated being outside. Even so, every so often my hands itched, wanting the feel of tree bark gripped beneath my fingers and the sensation of swaying gently while I looked up at the grass and down at the sky.
These days I surround myself with bricks and concrete in a little box downtown where no trees hang overhead. No grass brushes against my feet as I walk to my car. The only flowers are potted and perched decoratively around the front steps of the entry, safe in confinement.
I haven’t had a grass stain in almost twenty years.
When I get on the highway, it’s clear and quick. The city fixed the pothole off the third exit. Now there’s nothing to remind me of the bump and sway of tires dipping through old dirt roads. Everything is smooth and clear.
But somehow that doesn’t make the drive any easier.
When doctors test you for dementia, they often start with a simple conversation.
They’ll ask you to remember a couple of random phrases. Red balloon. Grapefruit.
Elephant. Plastic spoon. That sort of thing. Then they’ll talk to you for a little while. Eventually, they’ll ask, “What did I ask you to remember?”
What did she ask me to remember?
I’ve forgotten almost everything.
But it’s been a long time since she asked me to remember. I didn’t know it would be a test, in the end.
It’s a long ride to Parksley.
Grannie greets me with “Hi, baby girl” and I think she remembers the child she raised here. I wonder if somehow, despite the half a foot in height I’ve gained over her in what’s been nearly twenty years, she looks at me and still sees the little girl stepping through her garden, spade in hand, checking for roly-polies as I dig holes in her flowerbed. We had just learned about the life cycle of a flower in school. For weeks we nurtured daffodil seeds into tiny sprouts, just long enough to build a lesson plan on. When green shoots sprouted from my tiny, finger-painted flowerpot, I finally understood what life was. As with all things, I gave the leafy speck a name I have long since forgotten and called it my friend.
When the other children abandoned or neglected their small sprouts, Grannie taught me how to give mine a home in my own garden. After the yellow petals disappeared that first spring, I cried. She promised me that all things green will bloom and blossom once more when it’s their time.
Next year, the daffodils came back and I never doubted her again.
Every year since, for twenty years, I’ve had daffodils.
I wonder if she remembers those days. Instead of these days. Maybe she remembers every flower we ever planted together and that’s why she can’t remember anything else, like where she is or what she did with her glasses again. Who can really hold 80 years’ worth of memories? What’s more important, after all?
“I know who she is. She loves me just like I love her.” That’s what she said the last time someone asked her my name.
I never doubt her.
She likes to sit with me. I bring all the supplies to the couch and guide her through the process. She asks a lot of questions, looking for my approval before each step. “You want me to put this here?” Her wrinkled hands shove the hard plastic of the flower stems into the Styrofoam. Often too far. Sometimes not far enough. I fill in the gaps, showing her what makes a flower arrangement well-balanced and elegant.
In the end, we have a bouquet.
The grass tickles my feet as if it’s trying to take stock of me.
Trying to decide if I’m wood or concrete.
But are they really so different? The daffodils bloom and vanish, year after year. Our bouquets become weather-worn and in need of replacement, season after season. What really lasts?
What really needs to?
I let the long weeds brush against my ankles and quietly observe the bumblebees floating by. Grannie walks slower than she used to, but her steps are sure. I like to think she remembers the path from sister to brother to grandmother to husband. Her mother more recently included on that list.
When we get to Gramps’s grave, she sees her own name on the headstone next to his, dates yet to be filled in. She takes the bouquet we made and makes sure it sits perfectly centered on the stone. Vibrant and respectable.
We take the old ones away to do it all over again.
Right now water is rushing down my windowpane, accompanied by the smooth swiiiish of tires gliding over wet asphalt. I close my eyes and see droplets falling from honey locust leaves. The wind sounds the same howling between the high-rises as it does against the tin of a trailer’s roof.
Somewhere along the backroads of a small Virginia town, the ancestral grass is gleaming with a gentle mist. On the spot that will be my grave someday, raindrops are soaking into the dirt, quenching the thirst of all that lives in that tiny piece of land that I’ll inhabit when I have nothing more to give to this world. When I am gone, and there is no one left to adorn my worn stone with their wreaths, filled with the colors they knew I loved, I hope the earth will do it for me.
I hope daffodils are growing there.