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Where irises grow

I don't remember attending very many funerals when I was a child, but as the previous generations have aged, the number of burials has increased with each passing year.  My own children have been to so many funerals that they're almost blasť about it.  I have to admit I was a little discomfited when I found them taking turns playing corpse while the others chanted, "Dead man, dead man, come alive, come alive when I count to five."

One by one my grandparents' generation is dying off; in the two and a half years since Alec was born, Adam and I have lost four grandparents, and of my grandmother's six siblings, only two remain.  At my grandmother's funeral last month, my cousin exclaimed, "I swear, we only see each other at funerals," and I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that several of us were placing morbid bets on who would be the next to pass (if we had a family motto it would be "you have to laugh, or you'll cry.")

Although the details differ, there's a certain sameness to these funerals.  An open casket is de rigueur, as are the assurances that the deceased looks "beautiful" and "at peace."  Inevitably, there's a luncheon provided by the ladies of the church, with casseroles and dumplings and deviled eggs, not to mention pies and desserts of every description.  There are children underfoot, with grass stains on their Sunday best, and little old ladies, clutching at you with thin, frail hands.  When you shake their hands, they don't let go; they hold onto you, patting your hand gently and insistently.  There are hymns that promise heaven and speak of blood that washes us clean as snow.  Finally, there is the irrefutable grave: a gaping hole in the manicured cemetery lawn, with the pile of dirt beside it (discreetly covered with a green tarp).  Always, there is the necessary babble of noise and busy-ness, followed by the quiet aftermath, when the real grieving happens.  

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After my grandmother's funeral, my mother and I did what we jokingly call the cemetery tour with another cousin, walking through three of the graveyards where my family members are buried, locating graves and pulling away the creeping Saint Augustine grass that winds its way over the markers.  Now that most of the old folks are gone, it seems I'm one of the only ones who remember where everyone is buried.  I spent hours in those cemeteries with my grandmother and my great-aunts, hearing the family stories, learning the tragedies and triumphs of people long since turned to dust.  I don't have the anecdotes and names committed to memory the way my Aunt Bernice did (she could tell you how everyone in the cemetery was related to us, and every detail of their heritage to boot, without ever consulting a note).  But at least I can remember where the family graves are, and I have a three-ring binder full of cheat sheets for who's who and how we're related to the Civil War colonel (it comes in handy whenever one of my cousins wants to join the Daughters of the Confederacy).

When there's not a funeral going on, the family cemeteries are quiet, peaceful places, hidden in the woods, down winding, narrow roads.  Towering pines and creeping wisteria shade the older graves; family members have decorated the newer graves with mementoes and reminders of their loved ones: silk flowers, pinwheels, sun catchers -- one even sports a life-sized plastic deer.  It's rare to see other visitors; usually the only noises I hear are birdsongs, and occasionally the high, forlorn sound of a train whistle. 

I particularly love to visit the cemeteries in the spring, when the redbuds and dogwoods are blooming, and wildflowers and naturalized irises provide a frivolous contrast to the solemn grey stones.  My grandmother grew irises in her garden, and I remember how every year they spread further and further outside their brick-edged bed; they send out rhizomes, long horizontal roots that put out fresh stalks at every node, and given time, they'll take over an entire yard.  They may look delicate, but they're natural survivors; driving to my grandmother's funeral, we saw the kudzu covered remains of a house, surrounded by a field of frilly irises.

When I was a kid, these tiny East Texas towns felt like another country, provincial and out of step with the rest of the world.  My dad was in the Air Force, and we never lived anywhere for long.  I've always joked that I don't have a hometown, I've always felt rootless, but more and more, I think I was wrong.  I never lived in those small towns, with their quaint brick squares and pine-shaded cemeteries, but I sprouted from those roots and they nourish me even now.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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