Five-minute memoir: Alexis M Smith's visits to an Alaskan cemetery taught her about life - and maths

'I’ll never forget the day we arrived to find a new grave, covered in paw prints'

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The Independent Culture

One sunny June morning when I was about seven, Grandma Betty said we'd go out to visit Great Grandma Mable. She handed me a small spade and we dug up some Sitka strawberries from the old patch in the garden, put them in a shoe box and climbed into her white Lincoln Town Car.

We drove about 20 minutes on Kalifornsky Beach Road, which followed the Kenai River for a few miles, then curved along the coast of Cook Inlet. From the road, the Spruce Grove Cemetery looked like forest. Only when you pulled up the steep, shady lane did you see the gravestones between the trunks. Roots gripped the older graves, rippling over their tops like knuckles; there was a layer of rusty spent needles over everything.

Walking the path to the gravesite, the breeze blew gently through the branches, and I could hear the susurration of waves from Cook Inlet, just beyond the last bank of trees and down the bluff. (When we left Alaska a few years later and I saw the municipal cemeteries in Seattle with neatly clipped grass over them, I was dismayed, and sad for the dead who spent their eternal rest under sod, listening to grumbling traffic.)

We knelt on our family plot, pulled white clover and wild bentgrass, and planted the strawberries, while Grandma told me family stories.

My great-grandmother, Mable Ruth Whitlock Smith, died two years before I was born, but there were always stories about her. Her husband, John, had died in a farming accident in Oklahoma in the 1950s, when she was 47, leaving her to earn a living after years of being a housewife. So, she turned to a profession she had studied in college before she married: journalism. She wrote for a local paper before following her son and daughter-in-law to Alaska.

There, Mable set up a homestead and took a position at The Cheechako News. ('Cheechako' is a word used, sometimes pejoratively, for newcomers to Alaska.) She met politicians and artists, reported on everything from elections to cross-country skiing, and eventually became editor of the paper. She was also the beloved grandmother of my father and his four siblings. When my parents moved back to Alaska from Seattle after I was born, they moved into her homestead. The modest, hand-built house was the first home I ever knew.

When I asked about Mable once, my father told me that after she died, he woke in the night to see Mable standing in his bedroom doorway. She told him not to worry, that she'd be waiting for him, and he rolled over and went back to sleep. Years later, when his father died, and we were laying his ashes to rest in the Spruce Grove Cemetery next to Mable, one of his siblings mentioned a similar dream. The rest of the siblings recalled having the dream as well.

Grandma took me out to Spruce Grove every now and then throughout my childhood. After the work of weeding and planting was done, we walked among the graves. Grandma, a Texan by birth who had survived a childhood in the Great Depression, didn't spare me any details about the lives and deaths of those she knew who were interred there. We always visited Joyce Carver, a friend of Grandma's, an elementary school teacher who had started the first public library in Soldotna with Mable and some other women. She had been murdered in 1966, in a still unsolved case. The library where I checked out my Nancy Drew Mysteries had been named in her honour.

And I'll never forget the day we arrived to find a new grave, still heaped with dirt, but covered in paw prints. His name is lost to me, but it was the grave of an eccentric old sourdough who lived not too far from the homestead. He had owned a couple of dozen huskies, and had died in a house fire, along with some of his dogs. Neighbours had brought the survivors to the interment.

Grandma Betty was Mable's daughter-in-law, but also, I think, a close friend, out there in the wilderness. The responsibility of caring for a grave seemed perfunctory for Grandma: it was just what decent people did. But the stories she told me as we worked hinted at a deeper meaning that I couldn't quite grasp, so I took the task seriously and listened.

When I travel, I like to visit cemeteries. When people ask why, I often start with the fact that I learnt subtraction in a cemetery. We would pause by a gravestone and Grandma would ask, "And how old was she when she died?" And I would work it out in my head. I am still working out some of the arithmetic I learnt there.

'Glaciers', by Alexis M Smith, is published by Oneworld, £7. 99