Last December, amid all that this season brings under normal circumstances and what the first December brings to we who grieve, a display outside my local grocery store sent me whirling down into some unforeseen weird widow expectation. There along the outside wall right before the entrance door where no one could possible miss this exhibition stood wreath after wreath on tiny green stands. In previous Decembers I would have given this display a mere glance being fully buffeted by my typical December angst. But this year, four months into my widowhood as if the universe compelled me, I stopped to decipher the sign. It read “Cemetery Wreaths.”
“Oh shit,” I thought standing there in the cold, waning light of dusk, “I’m suppose to put a wreath on Tony’s grave.”
It took me days to work through whether or not I really wanted to put a wreath on Tony’s grave. My answer continually turned up as “no.” I didn’t want to be Tony’s widow in the first place so why in the world would I ever want to decorate his, well really our, gravestone.
Then I wondered if I didn’t place a wreath on the grave how it would look. Would it seem like I just didn’t care? Or was being sloppy in my responsibilities? The old me, pre-widowhood, would have said with a note of scorn “Don’t worry about it. No one is even looking at your husband’s gravestone. They are all too busy with the season or too young to think about it.”
But my own reasoning of an era now past in my life did not stop the internal niggling that somehow I was screwing up.
Niggling brought thoughts of perhaps I was being a bit selfish and really what would it take for me to buy and place a wreath in the cemetery this first Christmas. But the temperatures dropped to way below zero and it snowed and really when it came right down to it, I didn’t want to learn how to do this gravestone decorating thing. So I procrastinated.
I figured out however over the course of many days, my thinking slowed by my grief, that if I indeed placed a wreath on Tony’s grave I would need both a wreath and a wreath stand. But the stand at the grocery store was twenty dollars for something one of the boys could make if they were so inclined. Instead armed with a hobby store coupon I bought a wreath stand for a few dollars thinking, perhaps reasonably, that the stand might not survive the season. If it did survive the cold, snow, or human hands then I would have it for the next wreath needing holiday that I may or may not know about.
Of course I couldn’t find the stands in the store. After searching the entire place because really no one needed to know my mission, I was forced to ask a clerk for assistance. Then I had to put on a “this is common and normal, this asking for a cemetery wreath stand,” face so that I wouldn’t break out in tears which would crack my veneer of privacy and throw the clerk for a social loop.
Once purchased, I threw the stand onto the back floor of my car. There it lived for days staring up at me every time I collected the grocery bags. “Buy a wreath,” it seems to say until loaded bags of food squashed its insistent message.
By the time I finally convinced myself to buy a wreath most were sold out. Eventually I found a ragged, half-priced, slightly brown circlet at a local hardware store and tossed it in my trunk. Still the wreath and the stand stayed put in my car for another week void of their final resting place as I drove around town doing errands or running my son here and there or attending meetings or generally avoiding the cemetery.The evergreen aroma made my car smell festive at least.
After Advent service at church one night, I talked with another recent widow I know. We stood in the dark and cold parking lot talking of things only widows talk about. She too did not know about the wreath thing. But she had put a pumpkin on her husband’s grave in October. My insides screamed, “A pumpkin! Am I supposed to decorate for every holiday?” More evidence of the weirdness of my condition.
I polled my mother and aunt (both seasoned widows) on the wreath. Each put wreaths on their husbands’ graves through some program at their perspective cemeteries. So actually someone at the cemetery buys and places wreaths on each gravestone while my mother and aunt just send checks in. I like the sounds of this program but seems I picked a cemetery without this added bonus feature not knowing this perk should have been part of my decision making process.
Assured by both women that whatever I did was fine, I felt a bit better. But the wreath still gnawed at me. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It was if I had developed a brain glitch over the whole custom. I couldn’t shake what felt like an expectation coming out of nowhere. I wondered what I would say if my mother-in-law asked me if I had put a wreath on her only son’s grave. I would want to be truthful but also knew I did not traverse nor did I expect myself to know her cultural expectations at all during this time of bereavement.
Maybe however the expectations I sensed were not all external. Maybe some of this stuff haunting me was coming from within like my need to do well in my new, unexpected, and unwanted role. As if falling down on this job, that of widowhood, dishonored Tony and our love for each other. I felt guilty but wasn’t quite sure of the crime.Guilt that the parts of my life that were bringing me joy and solace now took precedence over things that were beginning to feel compulsory. And I began to feel not “good enough.” Not good enough as a widow and therefore as a wife. Grief saturates the mind in ways no one prepares for making for odd and sometimes irrational thoughts and conclusions. I just didn’t trust my own thinking in this matter.
People stepped in. My mother reminded me that in our faith Tony wasn’t at the gravesite anyway He is with God whatever that truly means. A friend who had worked with Tony asked me if he would care about a wreath. “No,” was my answer. He thought such rituals receptacles for empty actions developed to please others. My therapist laughed with outright joy as I told of my anxiety over the cemetery wreath. Her advice was to blog about it which at the time I thought a bit crass but now you can see I am doing exactly what she suggested. Tony himself would have found my dilemma wonderfully humorous which in turn would have given rise to a few words of blustery irritation on my part. Regardless of others’ support of my inaction, something didn’t seem quite right during this season so fraught with grief triggers.
So finally one less cold day when the temperature soared into the low teens, I caved as if needing to cross a task off my perpetual “to do” list. I drove to the cemetery on my way but really in the opposite direction of a monthly meeting with women friends in ministry. I love with a whole heart these women who early on in this expedition into the bowels of sudden, traumatic, and complicated grief sat in my living room and somehow understood my pain or maybe were just willing to imagine it. Then they dared to remind me as the weeks passed and I gradually awoke from the clouds of shock and sorrow that my mind was created to think and feel, not just feel. On this day my meeting with these friends would be my reward for doing what I was avoiding or still didn’t fully understand and of course didn’t want to do.
Off I went loosing my way within the labyrinth of old narrow roads which course through our final resting place. Heading toward the woods which line our joint plot I found Tony’s grave under a new landscape of snow and winter sky making it almost unrecognizable. Quiet permeated the cold as I set about my business as if it was business, alone in this place so full of other people’s memories thinking I did not want to be here now or ever.
Then the stand wouldn’t stay put on the sloping, frozen ground. It kept falling over, the earth unwelcoming to its spindly little legs. Giving up I retrieved the now weary, worn looking wreath from its hiding place. A trail of needles followed the wreath and I from from my car to the grave like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I managed to set the two together, the stand and its partner. But the wreath’s weight combined with the slope of the hill continually knocked the duo over until I leaned these bedfellows against the stone itself. Now the duet covered my name carved so precisely into our grave stone unsettling my nerves with its frankness. I stood back not really admiring my work but glad to have accomplished this arduous task.
But I wasn’t done yet.
It was a last minute addition, a thought welling up from deep within, the reason for the smooth grave stone top instead of the rough stone look. In my car I grabbed a stone bigger than my hand. It was one of many I had found in Tony’s office and hauled home along with business records, lamps, and computers. This one sat on the sill along the bank of windows lining one wall overlooking the heart of downtown. I crunched back down the slope placing the blue grey stone wrapped in a single cream line on top of the gravestone like I had seen in Jewish cemeteries. I realized I didn’t know the meaning of this practice but that it made visceral sense to me now, more so than the wreath. The stone, like all the stones in Tony’s office and in our home and in our gardens, came from places we had visited–Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, and even I suspect countries in Europe. Tony was forever lugging stones home like a scavenger and using them as paper weights, door stops, garden borders, and objet d’art. I didn’t know where this stone hailed from, but I knew it reminded me of our family’s life together, our voyage both with Tony present and with Tony’s love still surrounding us.
And I know my late husband would appreciate this gesture. The wreath, a topping. But the stone and the many which now live in a basket in our mudroom waiting to be put in a place of remembrance signify what we built as a family on a foundation of love. Love fraught with all the ins and outs loving relationships bring to us. Yet, love none-the-less.
And the wreath? Maybe I will next year and maybe I won’t. I do hope and pray and truly think the boys and me will have found many, many ways to celebrate our love together by next year which might be seen at the sight of Tony’s grave and then again might not. And that I, with more months of healing, more therapy, and more acts of resilience will have found my way as a widow that is true to who I am in this life and what our love as a family was and still is. Wreath or no wreath.