Highways and side streets, the blinding white light of the Atlanta sun. I played a game of musical chairs from my mother’s house to my grandmother’s apartment, to my friend’s car to her boyfriend’s car to my dad’s house to my aunt’s car till finally the music stopped and it was time for me to go home. To my latent realization I had become German to them. I was a guest and I was family, an emotional friend and lousy daughter, an absent sister. I heard stories spanning 16 years, I had been gone that long and reminisced of times even longer.
My grandfather died last December. I was not there. To my surprise my Existentialist aunt and Catholic mother were observing Korean Buddhist funeral rites of non-activity, feast offerings and bowing at the grave for 49 days, and my 25 day visit fell at the center tail end of it all. With each visit, I began to know my grandfather’s burial neighbors.
I had two misconceptions of my grandfather’s grave. The first happened over the phone, with its name. I did a lazy Google search while on the phone and saw beautiful images of a Gothic church and old crumbling gravestones that looked Celtic, and thought OMG is he buried in an old Southern, post-colonial Civil War grave site. I told my mother, “its beautiful”, and she took credit for it and said everyone started buying there after her. “And even next to a church”, at which point I discovered it looked Gothic because it was in England, another graveyard with the same name. My second misconception came while driving to the actual cemetery. My first impression was of admiration, that so many loved ones had maintained a fresh bouquet of flowers in the vase above the engravings. Only to discover, they were all artificial flowers, even my grandfathers. I later learned, flowers were fresh only on the day of the burial.
Life happened there and two more fresh graves were dug and filled. On New Year’s day, solitary remembrance was a luxury. My mom prepared an array of food of roots and vegetables that grew without sunlight, fruits, some fish and a large serving of white rice. Another man came to visit his friend’s grave next to my grandfather’s, they had both died within a week of each other. He had brought a single pink camellia, nipped at the bud, a canister of fresh coffee and a small plastic basket of oranges, chestnuts and a slice of a Korean pear. Three curious ladies were observing his every move with smiles, giggles and whispering. Is he the son, no how could the son be the same age as the father, who is he, what did he bring ? He became bashful with his casual offering and confessed, he didn’t know how it was properly done, looking at our feast and well- prepared fake persian rug.
My mother broke the ice and he told us their history and the story of his friend’s death. He gave us a brief eulogy of his friend, someone who really lived life, rode a motorcycle and loved to drink coffee. He poured the coffee into the ground and bashfully left for work. My aunt pondered, he must have been someone who liked things like coffee and ice cream. My mom swore next time, she was going to come back and honor my grandfather in a modern way, with a cup of coffee.
During this time I witnessed in the background a huge family clan comprised of four cars and kids of all ages. After the sensitive friend left, they started to make their way down the hill, the kids running full speed. They stopped right behind us, my grandfather’s neighbor to the south. They gathered around all 20 of them, each holding a burning stick of incense and began to sing a song in Vietnamese which my mom identified as Catholic since she heard the name Maria.
On another day, strong winds had blown the artificial bouquets helter-skelter, and my mom realized, the prettiest of her three bouquets were missing. I was in disbelief there were actually three. We scanned the premise and walked here and there until we saw a distant man in a small motorized green wagon driving toward us. We told him, one of our bouquets is missing and he confessed that he had gathered up dozens of artificial flowers that morning and he told us to wait.
He soon came back with the morning’s findings in the back of the wagon. We rummaged through until my mom recognized her flowers and I started to remember them too. She had been only picking fragments of white poinsettias when she grabbed some red ones and the guy asked, “you sure those are yours?”
A few days before I was suppose to leave, I had the best drive of all, in the backseat of my aunt’s car with Michael Jackson and Il Divo on full blast. We were slowly cruising in one of Atlanta’s oldest residential neighborhoods, where the trees stood just a little bit taller with trunks covered in Southern ivy. We passed colonial houses, french chateaus, Italian style villas, small creeks and rolling golf courses. As the sun was pouring through the windows, I felt a little bit of heaven.