Gathering to Remember

The coulee will always hold a special place in my heart and some of my most magical childhood memories.

looking up at the sky through the branches of a huge oak tree. the sun is peeking through the leaves, watercolor illustration
Image created via Midjourney // Anna Burgess Yang

This past weekend, my family gathered in the coulee where I grew up to say goodbye to my grandmother. She passed away on December 16th, 2020, at the age of 100. At the time, it didn't feel safe to gather for a memorial due to the pandemic.

But spring came, and all of the adults in my family got vaccinated. We found a weekend that worked for almost everyone to make a trip back to the coulee to spread her ashes beneath the sheltering oak. The same oak where my grandfather's ashes were spread more than a decade earlier. The same oak where my aunt and uncle spread the ashes of their beloved yellow lab. The same oak where we spread the ashes of Nelle and Iris.

The coulee will always hold a special place in my heart and some of my most magical childhood memories. Every time we return, the foliage is a bit thicker with the passage of time. I can tell which neighbors have repainted their houses and which look a bit neglected. I can tell when a new house has gone up or an old barn has been torn down. But it otherwise remains the same.

I can drive the winding roads based on muscle memory, even though I haven't lived there in nearly twenty years. It still feels very much like "coming home."

My grandmother lived a remarkable life — getting a degree in occupational therapy when the field was in its infancy, traveling the world as the wife of a foreign service officer and raising her children overseas, and then a tireless advocate for my grandfather when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

My aunt put together a slideshow of photos and videos. Hearing my grandmother's voice... she was witty and unfailingly interested in the lives of her family. She always wanted to know what we were up to. Even as her memory faded, she would carry on conversations, asking over and over about our jobs, kids, school... she wanted to know.

It was an auspicious day for us to gather. Not only did we celebrate my grandma's life, but it was also my aunt's birthday, and the 20th anniversary of September 11th. And Nelle's birthday was only a week prior, on September 4th. September is a month of birthdays in my family, with many others celebrating in the days leading up to and following.

As twenty-five of us gathered around the sheltering oak, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with emotion, thinking about scattering the ashes of Nelle and Iris, and every time I have visited the tree since. When Nelle died, my grandma wrote to me in an email, "My arms are around you and I am sharing your sorrow." She was a fierce, fierce protector of her family.

Many family members shared stories of my grandma or poems. I decided to share something I wrote back in 2016 after Iris died, as part of a writing course on grief.


Memories will fade.
Voices, smells, fingers, movements
Will become distant echoes of lives past.
So give me your stories.
That the presence may be etched
Into one more person’s mind.

Spring will emerge.
After a long winter, the dim, cozy interior of the house
Feels more safe than venturing into the blinding sunshine.
So give me your seeds.
That I may plant and nourish them
And you will have flowers, when you are ready.

The road will keep winding.
Endless labyrinth of circles and corners
Will be daunting in its never-ending unknown destination.
So give me your broken compass.
That we can join in our efforts and search
For the haven together.

The world becomes deaf.
Ears close to your screams and pleas
As days, months, and years crawl into the space.
So give me your words.
That my ears may listen gently,
Oblivious to the passage of time.

The emotions are burdensome.
Up, down, left, right, cyclical
Unrelenting in their heaviness.
So give me your stones.
Let me slide the weight from your shoulders
Onto my own, to provide some ease.

The journey is unwelcome.
But necessary in its requirement for
Existence on this earth.
Living is dying and loving is grieving.
So give me your hand
And let me walk with you.