In remembrance of those passed on

Despite my protestations about my own family’s haphazard lifestyle, there’s only so much one can plan ahead, especially when one’s trying to stage a particular atmosphere, to ritualize some event or behaviour.

On the Sunday, before coming back to Oxford, I decided I wanted to see my grandmother’s grave. I can’t explain why. Partly it was convenience: I’d not visited it since she died (having never actually met K.) and now that I was within a few miles of the cemetery it seemed churlish not to take the opportunity. Also, since my grandmother has missed out on the marriages of three of her grandchildren this year I felt, dimly, that I wanted to show my new wife off to her. I admitted to myself that K. had been there for the burial, which was on some level as close as they were ever going to get, but I rationalized that, in the possible event that some sentience might survive after death, Grandma was probably as distracted at that event as the rest of us were.

Beforehand, I envisaged this quiet, contemplative visit. Maybe I’d talk to my grandmother as if she was still there; maybe I’d just stand and think for a while. Maybe I’d bring flowers and put them on the grave. But it didn’t bode well for my high-minded ideas, when a discreet aside to my mother (to determine the whereabouts of the grave in the cemetery) turned into a free-for-all throughout the friends’ house we were all staying in, with my dad shouting from one room, friends bellowing their “padden?”s from the same room, and general debate on the geography and toponymy of Blackburn.

Eventually, after much bickering over who knew the best route to the cemetery, my father suggested that, after I dropped him off to pick up his car, he could drive ahead of me and I’d then follow. This suggestion was his trump card against everyone else’s directions, although it resulted in him constantly having to wait, having jumped a red light or gone far faster than I was willing to do. Of course, there was no question of stopping to get flowers now.

By the time we got to the cemetery, I was already in need of the toilet, having drunk more tea that morning than the body ought to be able to contain. Dad lingered for a while before hugging me and heading off, and I stood with K. wondering not just what to say, but what to think. I tried to remember my grandma, the way she spoke and her grin: the Sharples grin, that I’ve inherited and you can see shared in photographs of us together. I thought of the way she shuffled in her slippers round the back of the sofa when both grandparents came to live in our house, like she was on rails and steam powered. I tried to think of the way she brought me up when my mother went back to work full-time, taking me to nursery and then to Reception at the local Catholic primary; but that was a whole lifetime away, and if it weren’t for a few sepia-soaked stills that my mind still clings on to it might as well have happened to someone else.

In the end I decided I’d got all I ever would out of the encounter and K. and I headed off. I was moved by the occasion but left wanting something both more and less: more confessional, an explanation of what I’d been up to; yet less emotional, a chat rather than a weep. I think there’s some things you can’t realistically wish for, this side of the grave.

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