It always starts at Michael’s, the store where people go for craft supplies and odds and ends, including artificial flowers. Sometimes I might go somewhere else, like Hobby Lobby, but most of the time I go to Michael’s. That’s where I find the best artificial flowers that will stand strong in strong wind, survive the deluge of Louisiana rains, and fade slowly in our hot summer sun. That takes the best artificial flowers in town available to people who aren’t florists. Michael’s has those flowers.
It takes more time than I can spare to choose the flowers. Spending well over an hour isn’t unusual, neither is changing my mind more than once. I choose carefully, picturing in my mind which flowers will look best together, which ones will be used as the centerpiece of the arrangements, which will be used to frame those, and then which smaller ones will be used as fillers and greenery. After all, greenery is necessary in a flower arrangement, which is why I usually end up at Michael’s. The flowers there come with decent greenery, almost believable greenery, and that’s what I’m looking for because when I’m choosing flowers I’m on a quest. Not simply any quest. Not an insignificant quest, not some ordinary quest, not at all. There are no dark forests I must enter, only stores I must enter to find the flowers. There are no dragons to slay on my quest, only people who may be shopping flowers, too. There is no Holy Grail to find on my quest, only the flower arrangement that meets with my approval. I’m on a quest born of grief, love, and tradition. I’m on a quest born, too, of my need to participate in ritual. I’m on a quest for the perfect flowers that will come together to make the perfect arrangements for both my parents and my grandparents. They’ll never see them, of course. That would be unlikely since the flowers are for their gravestones. That fact doesn’t matter at all, so I find myself on the same quest at a minimum of four times a year, but if I’m doing it as I should be, more than likely six.
I learned at an early age how important it is to have fresh (artificial) flowers in the vase that is attached to the headstones of my deceased loved ones. I learned it through observation after my maternal grandfather died when I was 12. I learned it by watching my mother choosing flowers, on her own quest, taking forever, in her usual particular manner, while I grew bored waiting (but even in my boredom I felt sympathy for her, respected her, and wished I could relieve her of her task). I learned, too, by listening to the adults around me that people who were buried at the cemetery but had old flowers in their vases or maybe much worse, no flowers at all, must not have anyone who loved them, at least not anyone who lived locally. That was the absolute only reason that any grave would show neglect, that any grave would have flowers that were faded, were bent, were old. That would be the only reason that any grave would have no flowers in its vase. Now I search, I seek, in the same way my mother did. Now there are three more loved ones who have joined my grandfather in that cemetery, and she is one of them.
And so my quest. It will soon be 56 years since my grandfather died. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember the words that told me he was dead. I remember the slow-motion feeling, like that of walking under water, like time had stopped. He was my favorite grandparent, no contest. In some ways I probably worshiped him. I remember that when I must have been around 10 or so I prayed in my bed at night that nothing would ever happen to him because I couldn’t bear it. Since at that time we’d had no deaths in the family, I don’t even know how or where such a thought began its way to my conscious mind. I was his first grandchild, and he spoiled me in the perfect way that first grandchildren are always spoiled. My grandmother did, as well, but as sweet as she was, as indulgent as she was, she couldn’t hold a candle to him. I loved my grandmother dearly, but my grandfather was my true love. He was grandparent with a capital G. I had been right. I couldn’t stand life without him for a long, long time, and even now, as a grandparent myself, I still doubt that I ever completely recovered from that loss. That’s because I have learned some things since I was 12. One of the things I’ve learned is that we don’t ever fully recover from grief. Another is that we adopt certain rituals that we practice at times of loss and continue after.
And so my quest. And so my ritual with the flowers that made the cut at the cemetery this afternoon. And so my one-sided conversation with both my parents and then both my grandparents as I arranged their new flowers in the vases on their headstones. And so my failure, again, at holding back the tears. And so my grieving, fresh again, and rightfully so since we lost my father only two years ago this month.
One day I will join my parents. My husband and I will lie right next to them. They are at the foot of my grandparents. There we will pass eternity, at least the husks that we know as our bodies in this life will. We won’t be there, but our bodies will be until they have returned to dust. And so my daughters will have their own quests, their own rituals, and their own griefs.
How I wish I could save them from such a fate, but I would never run from the responsibility of changing out the flowers, from my inherited quest. Never. Neither will they. Neither will they.