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Sean Kirst: A Memorial Day quest, a quiet grandson and stories that live on

From a distance Friday, you could see the two of them, solitary figures searching the ground in a green plot at Forest Lawn.

They were in a section filled with rows upon rows of identical veterans’ graves near the Main Street fence – a place where a single tombstone can seem as hard to find as a grain of sand. Grover Coleman Jr. kept one arm around the shoulders of his 10-year-old grandson, Aidan Coleman, a fourth-grader at School 82 in Buffalo, while they took measured steps and studied the terrain.

“I bring him for his eyes,” said Grover Jr., 64 – a statement about vision, on many levels.

The family visit to Forest Lawn is an annual ritual for Memorial Day weekend. Grover Jr. starts off by finding the grave of his father, Grover Sr., who died in Buffalo more than 44 years ago. Grover Sr. served in a supply line during World War II, after the Normandy invasion. He was hit in the stomach with shrapnel and never fully recovered, and his son said those wounds contributed to an early death.

He and Aidan planned to stop, too, by the grave of Grover Jr.’s brother, Frank Miller, a Vietnam veteran who also was wounded in combat. They intended to seek out the stone of Grover Jr.’s mother, Ethel, who met her husband in Mississippi when they were young. She took a train ride north with him after World War II, prepared to leave behind the farming life and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South in search of new opportunities in Buffalo.

That's another reason, a big reason, to explain why Grover Jr. brought Aidan. He and his wife, Cheryl, are raising the child, one of their 18 grandchildren. Between the internet and computer games and other chaotic messages that splatter down on children like a kind of endless rain, Grover Jr. tries, in a steady way, to push back with what he sees as core principles of civility and life. There are certain things he hopes his grandson will learn, and nothing offers them with more clarity than a quiet walk at Forest Lawn.

“I want him to believe what I believe,” Grover Jr. said.

To him, the cemetery is not where you find the past. The cemetery is where you find a springboard for faith and motion.

In that way, grandfather and grandson helped each other. They were looking for the stone of Fred Washington, Grover Sr.’s neighbor and best friend, a guy who was really more of an uncle to Grover Jr. and his eight siblings. The two men died in the same year. Their graves are close together, fitting their tight bond.

“I remember they used to sit in the living room and drink that Black Label beer,” Grover Jr. said. Typically, the two men would be watching baseball. Because of their Southern roots, they were both devoted St. Louis Cardinals fans. They particularly revered the team’s great African-American players in the 1960s, such fierce competitors as Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. They lived in the same little enclave of black families in South Buffalo, Grover Jr. said, two of the adults who “kind of banded together to keep problems away from us.”

Lilacs were the favorite flower of Grover Coleman Sr., a World War II veteran. Every year, his son and great-grandson leave some on his grave at Forest Lawn. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

He wants his grandson to fully understand what that means. He wants him to know that his great-grandfather and great-uncle both shed blood and suffered for their country. He wants him to appreciate why Grover Jr. will sometimes pull over in his car when he hears the national anthem on an autumn night from some high school football game, why he'll stand at attention, alone on a sidewalk, until it ends.

His grandchildren, if they're with him, look at him as if he's lost his mind. But he said he does not do it because he is naïve. He knows there is still too much intolerance in this nation, that some people still see him and immediately, reflexively, close their hearts. He does it, he said, because he believes in the words of the Declaration of Independence – “All men are created equal” – and because his father and brother risked everything they had to make it real.

“This place reminds me of the sacrifices people have made, all kinds of sacrifices, to make us free,” Grover Jr. said. “It’s a continuous fight, but I don’t give up on it.”

He hopes Aidan learns through family example, even more so than through words: There are times in life when you have only one choice.

You stand up.

His father, Grover Jr. said, always loved lilacs. He grew them in his yard, these flowers of such meaning in Western New York, flowers that symbolize the end to the long winter. Friday, grandfather and grandson scattered some of the sweet-smelling blossoms on Grover Sr.'s grave, while Grover Jr. spoke out loud of what his dad taught him. The older man had been a farmer in the South, then a worker at Republic Steel in Buffalo.

“He told me the best way up and out was to go to school,” Grover Jr. said. “He had an eighth-grade education, and he wanted us to have the life you get when you go to college.”

Grover Jr. prefers to work with his hands. While he built a career as a machine operator, he passed his father's message on to his own six children. They listened. He spoke of how one of his daughters, Gwaina, was so driven academically that she became a lawyer in Connecticut.

Now Grover Jr. is emphasizing the same themes to his grandchildren. “Read well and learn to play an instrument,” he tells them. He sees those skills as a strategic mesh of discipline and imagination, as gateways to entirely new worlds of the mind. He believes they are the pistons for forward motion, which is why Aidan is already learning to play the keyboard.

On Memorial Day, Grover Jr. wants the child to remember everyone who helped give him that chance.

"We come here," Aidan said, "so I'll know my great-grandfather's history."

The child's grandfather paused and sighed: Where was Fred Washington’s grave? Grover Jr. knew how much it would mean to his dad if he took care of that stone. For a moment, the quest seemed almost hopeless. But even in that hushed place, where you hear the song of every bird, new technology turned out to be the key: Forest Lawn now has a digital means of searching for graves. A click or two on an iPhone provided details that led to Fred Washington, buried only a few rows from Grover Jr.’s father.

While Grover Jr. used a knife to clean away dead grass from every letter, his grandson softly read the words and dates on the stone.

“He’s a good reader,” Grover Jr. said. “I hope someday we have a writer, a storyteller, in the family.”

It was central to his reasoning in bringing his grandson to Forest Lawn: The ones who love you never leave you, if you have the eyes to see.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News who wants to know: Will you be visiting the gravesites of anyone you love this Memorial Day? To share those stories, email Kirst at skirst@buffnews.com or leave a comment below. You can read more of his work in this archive.

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