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'

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing