Talking to the Stone
Grandpa Butch pulled the pickup over on the side of the road. Bobby and Shane quickly piled out. Horatio jumped down out of the pickup bed where he had ridden to the cemetery.
Grandpa had two roses with him, just like always.
The little Norwall cemetery was a rectangular space of well-tended grass surrounded by stately pine trees just off the south side of State Highway Three. Numerous marble grave markers and family monuments were fairly tightly packed there. Across the gravel road to the East was a newer rectangle of grass surrounded by recently planted white pines that were supposed to be the new addition to the cemetery.
“Grandpa, your folks are buried up there in the old cemetery, right?” Shane asked.
“Yep. The Niland family monument up there contains three generations of our family.”
Bobby nodded at the monument on the hill. He had been taught reverence for the place by both Grandpa Butch and Dad.
That wasn’t, of course, where they were headed.
“I brought you your flower,” Grandpa said to the headstone in the new addition. He kissed one of the roses and put it in the brass vase. The other rose was stretched out to the first, pressed against it as if the blossoms were giving each other a kiss, and then hooked the stem around the left suspender of his overalls.
“Why do you always take one of the roses home with you again?” Bobby asked.
“She knows I brought it here to her, and she sends a little bit of her bright spirit home with me to watch over us for another week.”
“Grandma’s an angel now, isn’t she?” asked Shane. The goof asked that same question every time he came along to the cemetery. And every time it made a tear come to Grandpa Butch’s eye.”
“Of course. She’s right here with her wings spread wide, standing guard over us.”
“Does she ever answer you when you talk to her?” Bobby asked.
“Of course, she does. Don’t you, old woman?”
“So, you inherited the ability to hear voices who aren’t really there,” said Horatio to Bobby. No one but Bobby could hear him, though, so Bobby didn’t say a word in response.
“What you gonna tell her this week?” Shane asked. He often asked that same question too.
“Sassy, ain’t he?” remarked Grandpa Butch. He was talking to Grandma. “You know they can talk to dogs now, your grandsons?”
“What does she say back?” Shane asked.
“She says it’s only Bobby that does. And not to worry about it. It’s natural for Niland boys to have that ability. It’s a sign of smartness and a good imagination.”
“Does that mean that I’m not smart like Bobby is?” Shane’s eyes were open a little wider than usual.
“Oh, no, of course not. You’re both smart. Just in different ways.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I can vouch for the fact that I talked to voices that weren’t really there back in the 40’s when I was a boy. And your dad used to imagine werewolves and monsters he could talk to when he was a boy back in the 70’s. Bobby has the same kind of smartness we had.”
“And how is my smartness different?” Shane asked.
“Your Grandma tells me she was a very perceptive girl when she was your age. She was very aware of how everybody around her was feeling. And she would referee fights and arguments, always the peacemaker… always trying to make other people happy. And she also tells me all the times you’ve done the same exact thing for Bobby and some of his friends. You have a loving intelligence that works more with what you know is real than what you can dream up.”
“Is that a good kind of smart?”
“In some ways it is the best kind of smart. A kind of smartness the rest of us need to rely on.”
“So, Shane is better than me?” Bobby asked, feeling a sad spot in the depths of his stomach.
“No, no… Your Grandma just thinks it’s a different kind of smart. And you are both brave and handsome and good-natured. That’s what it means to be a Niland. You are near to the land, and you can make it blossom and grow.”
“What if I don’t wanna be a farmer?” asked Shane.
“That can be a good thing too. You could be like your Uncle Nat. He felt like that too, so he went to college at ISU and became an engineer. Now he’s a civil engineer in Des Moines, figuring out how to make city things work better and helping people get along with one another better.”
“Can you see her, Grandpa?” Bobby asked, looking at Horatio.
“Your Grandma? Of course, I can. She’s right here by her memorial, in the place that I’ll be one day too.”
“I can see her,” said Horatio.
“Dogs can see ghosts?” Bobby asked before thinking.
“I don’t know about ghosts,” Grandpa Butch said. “But I’ll bet they can see angels. Dogs see with their heart more than with their eyes. That’s why I see her here, and any place I put the second rose in the house.” Grandpa Butch’s eyes were wet. He didn’t say anything more. Neither did the two boys, both of them trying hard to see their grandmother too.