Stepping stones

Stepping stones

Editor’s Note: We at Topology are currently on our annual publishing break. In the meantime, enjoy this bonus essay on the July theme of Roots!

It took 20 minutes of fruitless searching, and a phone call to the off-duty caretaker, before my parents and I found my paternal great-grandparents in the unfamiliar cemetery. The markers for their graves looked like stepping-stones slightly sunken into the lush green lawn. The one for G. Oliver Riggs listed his birth and death dates, 1870-1946, and under his name, the phrase: Pioneer Minnesota Bandmaster. Next to him was Islea Graham Riggs, Loyal wife of G. Oliver Riggs. Her stone listed her birth and death dates, 1874-1942, and the additional phrase: A Devoted Mother—a Useful Musician.

The “Useful Musician” part struck me as odd. As a feminist, I was offended by this at first. Why does he get to be a pioneer, while she is simply useful? I wondered if her husband and two adult sons had chosen the phrase, or if it was something she herself had wanted. Perhaps it meant something more than what I took it to mean. It was possible, I supposed, that given my great-grandmother’s work ethic and her talents as a pianist, being useful was a high compliment. I hoped she was happy with it, since it was indeed written in stone; there was no changing it now.

I felt a chill of excitement, despite the June heat, as I stood on the earth above their remains. I was as close to them physically as I would ever be. Even though they would not know we had been there, it felt important to me to trace their names with my fingertips, to breathe in the evening air above them, and to listen to the chatter of birds that lived in the nearby trees. It was all so peaceful.

Their two younger children were buried there, too, and it made me sad to see their adjacent graves: G. Oliver Jr., who died in 1915 at age 1; and Rosalie, who died in 1917 at age 9.

Standing next to my mom and dad, staring down at the rectangular slabs, rekindled faint memories of another visit to a cemetery with my parents, nearly forty years earlier: the St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery on a quiet road outside of the town where I was born, 160 miles southeast of my great-grandparents’ final resting place.

My brother may have been with us, although I don’t see him in my memory. I am little, maybe 5 or 6—old enough to grasp that we are there to visit my sister, and old enough to read the words etched into the granite: Michele Marie Riggs, August 4, 1965, December 4, 1965. I am much too young, however, to comprehend the weight of sorrow those words and dates represent, or to fully understand one of the first acronyms I ever learned that I forever associate with her: SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome.

That visit likely occurred over Memorial Day weekend—I learned later that my parents visited Michele’s grave every year at that time and left flowers. Or it might have been in early August, on her birthday. They may have visited her at other times, too, without me, but if they did they didn’t talk about it. We didn’t speak of Michele often, but I would think about her sometimes, like when I’d glance at the photo of a baby girl who was not me that rested on top of my parents’ dresser; or when my brother was ignoring me. I’d wonder what she and I would have done together, and what it would have felt like to have a living sister.

I would always think of Michele during Advent, when I would help my mom carefully remove the three ceramic angels from the Christmas box and place them on the mantel above the fireplace. The boy in the blue robe with the trumpet was my brother, Pete; the girl in green, playing the violin, was Michele; and the brown-haired girl dressed in pink, singing, was me. Below the angels, Mom and I would hang the red felt Christmas stockings, decorated with glittering snowmen, candy canes and other Christmas symbols. Michele’s would remain in the box, never to be filled, looking as new as the day it was made.

Thoughts of Christmas and angels jolted me back to the present cemetery. Dad, ever the gardener, was gently pulling blades of grass that were obscuring the edges of the stones. Were my parents thinking of Michele right now? They knew far better than I what it must have been like for G. Oliver and Islea to experience the death of a child. My parents thankfully did not know what it was like, but may have contemplated, at some point, whether they could ever have survived the death of a second child.

Rosalie had died on Christmas Eve of an ear infection, and Islea had never again celebrated Christmas, according to stories my grandfather told my dad. My grandfather, who was a teen when his sister died, would not hang a Christmas stocking again until he married my grandmother two decades later.

My parents did not stop celebrating Christmas after Michele’s death. Two years and nine days later, they received an early present in the form of me. The nuns wrapped me up in a giant red felt Christmas stocking. Glittery silver letters on the front of the stocking proclaimed, “A Star is Born!”

When I was younger, I loved to hear my parents tell this story, and I’d ask them repeatedly to explain why they had named me Joy. “Because it was such a joy to have a girl,” either my dad or my mom would say.

It’s what my parents had left unsaid all those years that kicked me in the gut now, as I stood next to them and thought of my own three kids, safe at home with my husband.

How do you go on after tragedy? My parents could have divorced, they could have spiraled into depression, but somehow they kept loving each other, and loving my brother and me. If I made them proud and lived up to my name, it was only a token of what I wished I could do to ease their burden of sadness and pain. Parents should not have to bury their children.

Mom, Dad and I lingered in the cemetery long enough for me to take a few photos of the gravestones, for posterity. Then we strolled back to the car and ventured out for dinner together, a trio of hearts beating with useful, joyful purpose.