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Backyard Cemetery
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Hank Johnson, age 72, had just gotten the news from his doctor that his tumor was benign. He was so happy he couldn’t stand it. He stopped at the flower store to bring a huge bouquet home for his wife. Although the weather was cold and gray, to him the world was in bloom like the first day of spring. They called their two children who lived out of town, and there were smiles and tears all around.

The next morning, still basking in the glow of the diagnosis, he realized that other than his wife and children, there was no one else in his family to talk to about his good news. Except for a few nieces and nephews, with whom he was not close, everyone had passed. And he missed them. Even the ones he hadn’t liked at all, like his nasty older brother Bob, he still missed. He spent the next couple of days on Ancestry researching them. Although none would be in the history books, he marveled at the simplest details of their lives; their occupations, their families, how they had ended up. Somehow he felt enriched by knowing the reality of their existence.

He felt he had to honor them. Other people honored their ancestors. Although his were long gone, he wanted to do the same.

He decided to build a cemetery for them. His backyard would do nicely. Obviously he didn’t have their remains, but that was OK. He knew their dates of birth and death, and a little bit about each of them. He would have tombstones made for all of them and put them in the backyard. They would be very traditional. Date of birth, date of death, and maybe a few words: devoted father, served his country, raised three loving children, etc. In order to avoid them all looking the same, he went to a few tombstone companies, and ordered stones made out of different types of materials, with different fonts and different engraving styles. He even found one outfit that would sandblast the stones in a certain way to make them look weatherbeaten.

The day came when the stones were delivered. He asked the deivery people to leave them in the backyard. There were twelve stones all together, and he installed them in the ground, making sure that couples and family groupings were close together. It was heavy work, and he was exhausted by the end, but felt very satisfied. The next day, he placed flowers by the gravestones, saying a few words of blessing and prayer for each relative, even the ones he’d never known.

A couple of neighbors complained that the backyard cemetery freaked out their children, so he put up a tall fence. Actually that made things better. It felt really good to be back there with his family, with no one watching.

Some days he spent hours in the yard, looking at his relatives’ names. In his mind he pictured the ones he had met, working to recall not just their appearance, but their voice and gestures as well. When he could, he tried to remember what it was like to hug them. When the rains came, he built himself a shelter, where he could sit and stay dry. If it snowed, he always made sure to brush the tombstones clean. Being able for the names to see the sky was important.

He assumed that some time in the future, there would be another tumor, and the news would not be so good. But at least his family would be there with him to help him get through it. That made him feel very fortunate.


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