“This is Gigi’s grave,” I told Eli.
“You didn’t know her,” Laila said with a sibling’s brew of pity and triumph. “I did, but only when I was a baby.”
We were all standing around the cemetary in my hometown of Michigan, my sister, Laura; my neice and nephew, myself, and Laila and Eli.
I hadn’t been home in two years.
Besides seeing relatives, my mission on this vacation was to pay my respects at my mom.
She died almost eight years ago.
The truth is, I’ve never felt particularly connected to the actual place we buried her, but I wanted to say hello, anyway.
“I left her a Chai on Mother’s Day,” Laura remarked, picking it up. “Look it’s empty. She probably stuck a straw up and had a sip.”
“Is she down there?” Eli wanted to know.
“Just her body,” I said.
“Oh, no, it’s decomposed by now,” offered my niece Anna, 11. “Oh definitey her skin and muscle has fallen off the bones and…”
“OK, Anna, we’re good there. She’s not really down there,”I explained to Eli. “That’s just her body, not her soul.”
“What’s a soul?” came the follow-up from my 5-year-old.
“A body is basically meat casing for the soul,” I added. “A soul is like – who you are. The essence of you.”
“Put your hands here,” said my sister, directing Eli to a lush patch of grass, which he patted oblidgingly. “Do you feel her here?”
He shook his head no.
“It’s OK, Eli,” I said. “I don’t feel close to her here either. It feels like I should, but I don’t.”
Eli reached toward me and I scooped him up. He wrapped his mitts around my neck and gave me a hug.
“Gigi,” he said a little longingly. “Gigi. Where is Gigi?”
“She died,” I said.
“How did she die?”
“Cancer,” I said. “C’mon, let’s go look at the other graves.
We contemplated the older stones, some worn down by weather and barely legible, which my sister found tragic.
Drew, my 9-year-old nephew, and Laila wandered off to explore the mysteries left by the inscriptions on slabs sticking up like rows of grey teeth.
But soon it was time for a snack break and a trip to the park. They bounded down a hill.
“Sanctity, children! It’s a thing. Stop running.”
I took another look at the dates on my mom’s headstone before we left.
I knew her, but did I, really? My memories are fading, which I hate.
The story of her has massive holes in the plot.
Her childhood? I know almost nothing.
When we wrote her obituary it occurred to us that we didn’t know where she was born.
The wedding date on her tombstone was even a source of dispute. Somehow she and my Dad went back and forth on the year they donned matching white suits like Sonny and Cher, tied the knot and sped off in a baby blue vintage Jag. Parents not present. Never explained.
Should I go looking for answers before my own memories disappear forever, before those that knew her long ago say goodbye, too?
An intensely private person, I doubt she would approve of any effort of prying.
And yet, I’m tempted to anyway, for completely selfish reasons.
I don’t want her to disappear from my own mind.
I want to understand who she was.
I want my son to know her, if only a little.
It was time for graveside trail mix and Capri Suns out of the back of my sister’s SUV.
Back at home in Maryland, I still don’t know if I want to go looking for my mom’s secrets.
And if I did — where would I even begin?