Saturday, May 23, 2009

What's the Story?

By Keith Fisher

Several years ago, our government set aside one day a year, specifically designed to remember those who died in the service to their country. Since then, Memorial Day has evolved into so much more.

Now, it’s a day to remember all our loved ones who’ve passed away. It’s a day off from work, a three-day weekend. The first real warm day to get outside.

In my family, we used to set aside part of the weekend to visit all the dead ancestors and place flowers on their grave. When my Grandfather died, my mother inherited his list. Grandpa visited every grave he knew about and since he raised peonies to sell, he gave the extras to his ancestors and placed color on their graves.

A few years ago, we started a tradition in my father’s family. After placing flowers on Grandpa’s grave, We’d go to the family home and visit. A picnic would ensue on Grandma’s front lawn.
There were times over the years, when camping and fishing were the order of the day, and vacations were sometimes planned during that time, but we always migrated back to family members and the comforting feeling of being connected.

This year will be different for me. It’s the first Memorial Day since my father died. His headstone has been placed, waiting for the onslaught of those who miss him. I took a picture last year of Mom and Dad at his father’s grave. Who knew that we would be visiting him this year?

I’ve witnessed some interesting traditions practiced in cemeteries over the years including big family picnics on the grave. I’ve seen "super sized" fast food left on graves. Candy, letters, pictures, and solar walkway lights. The latter gave me cause to wonder for awhile when I passed the cemetery on the way home from my writers critique group.

I stopped one day, and discovered the lights. What a great idea, I thought. It was a nightlight in case the deceased woke in the middle of the night in unfamiliar surroundings. I guess it could be interpreted as an eternal flame?

Whatever your tradition, for a writer, there’s a plethora of new material in cemeteries at this time of year. Almost always, I field the question: "Where do you get ideas to write about?" Here’s a great source. I recommend you go alone, unless you have kids who can entertain themselves and stay out of trouble. Take a lawn chair along and set it up on Grandpa’s grave.

Look around you. Humanity is unfolding before your eyes. Watch people from the time they get out of their car. We tend to show our hidden personality traits when we grieve. Some traditions are as individual as the people who perpetrate them. My uncle told a joke once, at my grandfather’s grave. It hadn’t been long since Grandpa died and the tree was still small.

The story is told that an American visited Japan and witnessed the tradition of leaving food on the grave. The American callously asked, "When do you expect your dead loved one to sit up in their grave and eat all that food?" The answer came succinctly, "Oh, I don’t know, about the time your ancestors come up and smell the flowers I guess."

There are millions of stories in the cemetery. Take along a voice recorder or a notebook. My friend, Kim Thompson, recently told a story about watching a young couple bury their child. She told of the feelings she felt. And several scenarios came into her writer’s mind.

I watched a man come to the cemetery once. He parked his motorcycle under a tree and made his way across the lawn. He looked at the ground at all the headstones. Then sat down in front of one. I watched his conversation proceed. It was obvious to me that he’s been having a hard time dealing with his loss. He missed his loved one, and I suspect coping with life was getting harder every day.

As a writer, I imagined the tragic death of a young wife, the end of a dream. The promises broken and hopes crushed. I imagined the death of a best friend. The broken promise to attend college with him.

I’ve heard stories of people actually dancing on graves, pouring the contents of a bottle of whiskey on the grass, and one true story of a man taking a sledge hammer to a headstone. The police didn’t arrest him because he promised to replace it. Can you see the drama? Are the stories percolating in your head?

When you get tired of sitting. Walk around a bit. Look at what people leave on headstones. Look at the headstones themselves. Sometimes there is a life story carved in that rock.

Good luck with your writing---see you next week.


LexiconLuvr said...

I loved the motorcycle guy story. Even the one about the crushed headstone. Not that I'm gleeful about them but I love the intensity of the emotion.

I'm sorry about your father. Take care.

Ali Cross said...

A really interesting idea Keith. One I haven't really thought of myself, though I've spent a good deal of time at a cemetery recently and seen some interesting things. It never occurred to me to take inventory of them and keep them for future writing use.

Hugs to you.

Cindy Beck said...

That's a great idea, to use a headstone as the prompt for a story! Thanks for posting that thought.