Joe finished with a satisfied pat of flat of his shovel on the fresh churned earth. He looked up. The leaves had turned to fire on the trees, red and orange maples, yellow oak trees, and the drooping willows just turning from green to yellow. The sky was clear and blue, and the air was just crisp enough to herald the coming winter. The early afternoon light streamed through the canopy, and it was peaceful.
As it ought to be.
Joe picked up his shovel and placed it in the empty wheelbarrow. He wheeled his way back to the little shed in the south corner. After he had returned everything to it’s place, Joe grabbed his lunch bag from the bench, and locked the door behind him. His keys didn’t jingle as he walked, and he didn’t whistle. His heavy-booted feet made almost no noise on the soft ground between the gravestones. After twenty years, Joe had instinctively become a silent guardian of the peace of this restful place.
He made his way through the rows of gravestones, some decorated with flowers, wilting in the autumn air, some empty. He reached the bench, and sat, his lunch bag on his lap.
“G’morning, Abe,” he said, nodding to the man beside him. Abe nodded back.
“Mornin’,” he replied, his wrinkled and spotted hands clasped in his lap. Joe unzipped his lunch bag, and pulled out a sandwich, carefully wrapped in wax paper, and just as he liked it: peanut butter and jam, with peanut butter on both pieces of bread and raspberry jam, not the seedless kind, generously sandwiched between. He handed it to Abe. Abe nodded his thanks, and bit into the sandwich.
Joe took out a second sandwich, just the same. He opened his thermos and poured two cups of tea. Still steaming, it was just as he liked it: milky and sweet.
“Leaves are starting to fall,” Abe said, between bites. Joe nodded.
“I’ll be raking all day tomorrow,” he replied.
“You ought to get them to buy you a leaf blower,” Abe suggested. Joe shook his head.
“Wouldn’t be right,” he said, “Raking suits just fine. Maybe get a new rake this season, though.” Abe nodded in reply. The men sat in comfortable silence, with their sandwiches and tea. When they were done, Joe produced two cookies from the lunch, and shared one with Abe. As Joe rose to leave, to get back to work, he patted Abe’s arm.
“See ya tomorrow, Abe,” he said. Abe nodded.
“Tomorrow,” he confirmed. As Joe walked away, he turned back for a moment to watch Abe get to his feet and place a small stone on the top of the gravestone nearest the bench. The headstone lined with smooth pebbles in shades of grey, with hardly room for more.
Joe worked his way back through the graves, on his way to the shed. On some, the hyphen connected dates that were too close together; one had a new hair ribbon, pink and perfect, as always. Laureen had asked him once if these small graves made him saddest, if seeing a teddy bear or a toy placed on the cold ground was the hardest.
Joe knew better. There was no hierarchy of grief. Each stone marked a loved one, and that love was not tempered by time, or age, or the manner in which they died. Each stone bore the same weight on his soul, and Joe felt the gravity of each one.