Elena collected stones. Kim and I have tried to remember how it started or why she did it — she just always liked them.
Even at an early age, as she was moving away from the pair of blankets that served as her attachment object, she kept a rock on the night stand next to her bed. She would bring it downstairs with her and put it on the dining room table while she ate.
Maggie had a large collection of stuffed animals. Mainly cats. Elena had stuffed animals too but she loved her rocks.
When we would go to the beach, Elena would scour the beach for rocks that were perfect to her. The rest of us tried to see her rocks in her eyes. She loved them all. At the end of the week we would make her choose among the dozens she’d picked up.
“You can bring home three,” I’d say.
“But daddy,” she’d protest, “they are all so beautiful.”
“I know,” I’d agree, “but pick your three favorites and we’ll take the rest back to the beach and set them free.”
She would sit and study them for a while. She’d quickly settle on one or two but the third slot was hard to fill.
“Daddy?” she’d ask. I knew I was being manipulated before the words were out of her mouth. “Daddy, do you think it would be o.k. if I kept six?”
“Well, I said three.”
“I know, but how about six?”
“How about four?” I’d offer.
“O.K.,” she’d say in a voice so cheerful that I realized she’d only wanted to move me to four the whole time.
This summer we were back on the beach picking up stones. I suddenly felt like Elena. I wanted to keep them all. I wanted to bring them all back to her and bring them to her grave to show her.
I chose one. It was beautiful. I don’t know why. It just was.
I meant to bring it to the cemetery and leave it for Elena. I’ve misplaced it somewhere in our house. I haven’t looked too hard for it. Maybe it’s meant to stay in the house.
I carry another stone around with me. I saw it at a street fair which we were visiting my sister Jill this summer. I don’t know why I bought it. I keep it in my pocket for now. Maybe I’ll find a place for it in the house. Maybe I’ll bring it to Elena’s grave.
How do you pick a stone for Elena?
That’s how we spent Friday. Friday the thirteenth. Me and Kim and Maggie walking through a cemetery looking at stones.
Maggie has asked to be involved at various points in the process. She picked out the clothes Elena was buried in and now she wants to help pick out her headstone.
We drove to Lakeview Cemetery and walked up to Elena’s grave. The ground has settled. The dirt is no longer mounded and fresh. The grass has grown in on top of her body. Nearly eight months have passed.
She has new neighbors. There are flowers stacked on newly dug graves not far from hers. Some of her other neighbors have new stones. There are stones for little girl who died along with her grandparents. The grandparents share a stone just beyond Elena’s grave. The little girl’s stone sits to the right of theirs. A picture etched into the stone along with a poem.
Someone has decorated their grave with miniature pumpkins. They have also left stones the size of your fist with little notes written in permanent markers. Stones for the deceased.
There’s a stone that looks as if it has been vandalized. It isn’t sitting in the hole that it fits in. It sites askew a foot or two away. We look closer. It is a grave for a couple. The wife died years ago, the husband died in February. They have just returned the stone to the site having carved in the date of his death. They haven’t placed the stone back where it belongs.
At the head of Elena’s grave is a small flat stone with her name written on it. Kim and I looked at each other – it’s time. It’s time to choose a headstone for Elena. A headstone for a six year old.
“I don’t think we should put her picture on it,” Maggie began.
We agreed. We thought it looked fine for others. It just wasn’t something we wanted for Elena.
What would she have wanted? I can’t begin to know. She might have liked an interactive video where visitors could select a song and an outfit and she would appear in that outfit singing the song they chose while performing an interpretive dance.
She might have liked one of her non-sensical knock knock jokes inscribed.
“Elena who was born in 1999 and whose mom was Kim and dad was Daniel and older sister was Maggie. Elena who …”
I finally get the joke. There’s just not enough stone to carve it on.
We’ve looked at the head stones in her section before. This time we were looking like buyers in a used car lot.
“This one’s nice,” I said.
“I like the color of this one,” Maggie said.
She liked the rose colored stones and the grey stones. We settled on the reddish stones. Kim and Maggie agreed on the rounded stones with the writing on one side. We’re still not sure what to write. Her name is rather long: Elena Maxine ChunXue Steinberg.
“I’d kind of like to write something,” Kim said.
“What do you want it to say?” I asked.
“I don’t know. What do you think?” she asked back.
I don’t know either. Maybe just the phrase that runs through my head whenever we visit Elena’s grave:
How could this happen.