My Letter

Like a taste for my grandmother's homemade Southern fruitcake, my taste for Oakwood Cemetery has matured over time.

Growing up, I always hated having to visit the cemetery. When you're five years old, the last thing you want to do on Christmas day is go visit the gravestone of somebody you've never met, especially when the lure of presents awaits you at home.

But every holiday - Christmas, Thanksgiving, even birthdays - before Grandma allowed the fun to start, we had to go visit Grandpa's grave and leave flowers.

"Why do we always have to visit the cemetery first?" I whined as we pulled up at Oakwood.

Grandma, coifed and lovely in a new dress, knelt by the Alexander headstone, while mom tried to entertain me by showing me the other Alexander plots. "See? That's your Aunt Nancy. A lot of our family is here. So we will all be together."

"Who is that one?" I asked, pointing at another grave in the Alexander setion. Mom had to confess she wasn't sure - some of the family was too distant for her to know.

At last, Grandma finished with Grandpa's grave, and we could go home and have Christmas presents and dinner.

However, as I got older I began to appreciate the visits to Oakwood. The older I grew, the longer the years had been since Grandma had seen her lost husband.

Seventeen years. Eighteen years. Thirty years.

Time passed, and with each year my appreciation for her eternal devotion deepened.

Even after thirty-five years apart, she never failed to visit him, even as her own body grew frail and weak. Her joints aching, she'd still get out of the car and make that trek down the grassy hill to his grave.

Until that year came that she could no longer do so.

Once she reached her 90's, it became difficult for Grandma to walk to his grave. Instead, mom and I drove her as close as we could, then took a photo of the flowers we left on his grave and showed it to Grandma.

I'm certain it was a sad day for her.

But by that point she didn't realize how soon she would join him.

For over 35 years she visited him every holiday. She never forgot him. She never moved on.

She raised his dogs, his children, his grandchildren - and she made certain we never forgot him either. In fact, although I never met him, such were the strength of her stories and memories that it often never occurs to me that I never meet my Grandpa.

Alive in Stories

My Grandpa passed away a month before I was born. I was his first Grandchild. And my cousin followed me six months later on Christmas Day.

On the night before his daughter's graduation, he suffered a massive heart attack in the hotel room, with Grandma by his side, and abruptly left all his plans behind.

He wouldn't watch his daughter graduate. He wouldn't meet his grandchildren.

There are six of us grandkids all together now. Although we never met Grandpa, my Grandmother made sure he was present at every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every birthday - in our family stories.

Each holiday we sit around the table and share the same stories.

Uncle Joe tells about the time Grandpa and his brothers convinced their employees that their building was haunted by a ghost named Mr. Griffin, and that the trucks were driving themselves.

Eventually we'd tell so many funny stories that Grandma would stop laughing and actually start whooping and hollering - something her Southern delicacies and lady-like manners often never allowed.

That's when we knew Christmas had really started.

One day I was recounting a story to my best friend, when I suddenly realized I was telling a stories about a person I've never met. Grandpa's stories had become my actual memories.

Looking back it feels like Grandpa's always been there, sitting at the table, and laughing right along with us at Christmas dinner.

A New Meaning for Oakwood

When Grandma had a stroke in her early 90's, we knew our whole family's life had changed. She was the Matriarch. Even without Grandpa, she held the family together, cooking enormous Christmas dinners and fruitcakes for all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Even if we didn't see the family all year, we knew on Christmas we'd gather around her table, eat her food, and tell the same stories.

We had Grandma for one last Thanksgiving, as she slowly slipped from the world after she became ill.

Uncle Joe played the piano, Aunt Jan worried over her medical care, and Aunt Sherry & Mom provided daily care.

The cousins and even her great grandchildren all came. We looked at family albums, told stories, and looked at each other through teary eyes, wondering about the future of our holidays.

It was here - the Christmas we never thought would happen, the Christmas without Grandma.

She passed away just a few days before Christmas.

We gathered at Oakwood Cemetery, and told stories about her life. Someday, even this day will be a story.

Now when I visit Grandpa's grave, such a familiar pilgrimage from childhood, it holds new meaning. Now my Grandma is there, too.

She isn't around to bring the family together, and to keep all the memories alive with her stories.

When Grandma passed I visited the ghost of her childhood home and tried to soak up the stories of her youth - to pull my ancestral memories from the dirt.

It's up to us to keep those stories alive now, for her great-grandchildren.

I visited my Grandma's house the other day, where Aunt Sherry, Uncle Joe and mom still gather. It's the family's home now.

I sat down at the table for lunch, while Uncle Joe told me the story about how Grandma use to whoop and holler at some of our funny stories at Christmas. That's a story I don't want us to forget.

I smiled and felt a bit lighter.

I never met Grandpa, but I always felt like I knew him, but we can keep her alive for the next generation, too. She's not so far away at all.

~~~ For Lucille Bell Riggsbee Alexander and Joseph Edward Alexander

May your stories and names stay alive in the history of Raleigh and in the history of our family's hearts.

Oodles of love, Heather Leah

Heather Leah, Hidden History Author

This letter is part of the Death Letter Project - North Carolina, a means to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


Michael Palko