ETCHED IN STONE — Virginia Foley traces the etchings on her sister’s gravestone. It’s a tradition learned from her grandmother, who taught her “the true meaning of loving one another on this earth and beyond.” (Stephen Beaumont Photography)

True meaning of loving others is etched in stone

By Virginia Foley

My sister is buried in a small grassy plot marked by a headstone on which is carved some of the things she loved the most: palm trees, goblets of wine, daffodils and the first measure of the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow. These words and symbols help to communicate her story.

I knelt on the ground and pulled the long grass out that sprouted wildly around the stone and between silk flowers that had been lovingly pushed into the soil by one of her daughters. Then I traced the letters of her carved name with my fingertips. It took me back to when I was much younger and my grandmother took me to cemeteries in my hometown and in hers.

I visited Grandma often, staying overnight with her on many weekends, school holidays and during the summer. She had the gift of the gab and was well-known, especially in her church. Always on the go, she visited the sick, the old and the dead and dragged me along with her on her daily jaunts.

Typically her day began with a long, long walk to the cathedral where she worshipped at daily mass. My stomach would grumble because breakfast had to wait until after communion. As bells rang in the belfry, we’d trudge up a steep hill, arriving just in the nick of time. I can’t say I enjoyed being dragged out of bed to hike the two miles but I was fascinated by the way Grandma prayed aloud reverently and with conviction and had a strong connection to every last person in that cavernous church.

Usually Grandma hitched a ride home with one of the congregants, blatantly asking for a lift even though they didn’t necessarily live in her neck of the woods. I recall one large jovial man who drove a massive leather-seated Chevrolet that gleamed baby blue in the morning sun. I’d climb onto the back seat, my legs dangling nowhere near the floor, and feel like a princess in my coach. With the wind from the open windows blowing in my face and my heart warmed by goodwill, the morning hike and my rumbling stomach were soon forgotten.

It was still quite early when we sat ourselves around grandma’s Formica-topped table where she’d haphazardly arrange a mishmash of whatever bits of bread she had on hand, sticky jars of jam and honey, half-mixed glasses of frozen orange juice with chunks of ice in them and greasy slabs of bacon she’d quickly fried up. I’d stuff my face with whatever she served, while my ears burned from her incessant chatter. How I loved the old woman!

She told hilarious, often repetitive stories about her old friends, new friends she’d met visiting the sick on her hospital rounds and stories of those who’d recently died, whose names I’d heard announced at church and for whose souls the congregation had been asked to pray.

Many times I sat in the vestibule of a funeral home while Grandma popped in to the main room, the one with the coffin, to offer her last respects. Visitors would smile at me when they saw a young child in such a sombre place and I’d always smile back. Occasionally she’d hold my hand and lead me into the place where the dead person lay, ashen white, a rosary entwined in bloated, cold hands. Somehow Grandma made it feel less like a sad occasion but rather joyous that this person was called home to a happy place.

Once or twice a summer we’d take a bus ride into the country to visit and tend to the graves at the cemetery. After kneeling to pull out errant weeds and long grass around her parents,’ husband’s, and son’s graves, she’d hand me a cloth from her purse, which I’d dampen under a nearby water spigot. With it, Grandma would wipe the dust from the granite and polish it till it shone. When the stone was done to her satisfaction, she’d place her fingers to her lips and then trace the person’s carved name, making the sign of the cross and quietly, without words, move on to the next grave. It was only one of a few moments when I’d ever witnessed my grandmother quiet.

She’s been gone for almost 30 years now, having lived till she was 91. Her own daughter is now almost that age. My sister, my best friend, lived but 46 years and she also spent long periods of time with our grandmother, doing the same things I would do. We usually visited separately; Grandma gave her grandchildren that special one-on-one attention that you crave when you’re one of a family of five children.

When I trace my sister’s or my father’s carved names on their headstones, not only do I feel connected to them, but I also feel that bond toward a strong, tiny, gregarious lady who taught me so much about kindness, giving and the true meaning of love. Her faith in God and in people was pure and uncomplicated.

Last year I visited her grave, pulled out the deadwood, touched my fingers to my lips and traced her name, making sure to trace every letter, the cross and the bunch of flowers etched into her stone. My grandmother taught me the true meaning of loving one another on this earth and beyond.

Foley is a Canadian freelance writer living in Kitchener, Ont., who recently moved back to her homeland after 13 years in the U.S., Caribbean and the U.K. She has been fortunate to travel and reside in many parts of Europe and North America and much of her writing is inspired by these experiences.

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