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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Family's message inspires from beyond the grave

Published: Tuesday, May 13 2014 4:19 p.m. MDT

An inscription at a cemetery left a strong impression on a runner.

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I’ve never been much of a runner.

I tried running on the cross-country team in middle school, but I was never very fast. I ran track in high school — low hurdles and high hurdles — but I always got horrible shin splints. And I occasionally fell on my face.

I kept running, even though I was just never very good at it, until, eventually, I graduated from high school and lost the motivation I gained from being part of a team. Besides, I have an achy right knee that crunches when I walk up the stairs and my left knee isn’t far behind. My ankles roll in, I’m slightly pigeon-toed and my gait is too short — not like the gazelle-like runners I see who float from foot to foot while they sail down the road.

My running frequency after high school dropped from daily to sometimes to seldom to almost never. The only time I ran was on a treadmill at the gym in between cycling classes — and I hated every second of it.

And yet, somewhere along the way I heard about the Ragnar Relay Wasatch Back race. It’s about 200 miles divided between 12 runners, from Logan to Park City. I made a mental note to someday do that race — someday when I was in really great shape without a creaky knee and pigeon toes and crooked feet.

So, naturally, when one of my best friends was assembling a team this winter, eight months after I had a baby and about two years after my last foray on the treadmill, I told her to sign me up. I wasn’t in great shape. I still had rickety knees and amateur feet. But I finally had a team to give me motivation.

So, I started running again.

One of my routes takes me past a cemetery that’s down the street from my house. It’s at the top of a hill that looks over the Great Salt Lake and Antelope Island. It has trees, simple headstones and granite benches placed strategically around the grounds.

One of those benches caught my eye one morning as I was on my way back home after a run. I’d passed it before, but I never really looked at it. This time, as I approached, I wondered if people came to sit on the bench to look at the view. I glanced at the top and saw the words “Please — no” engraved in the stone.

I automatically assumed it said something like, “Please — no loitering,” or something along those lines, to keep people away.

I was wrong.

As I finally passed the bench, I glanced over and saw the words written on the top: “Please — no empty chairs.”

I was a little stunned at the inscription, and I thought about it the rest of the way home and for days after. I wondered what it meant. I imagined a pair of very wise parents thinking long and hard about their death, and choosing to leave a message on their grave that would inspire and encourage their children for generations after they were gone.

I imagined them crowded around a dinner table, looking around at all the faces gathered there. I imagined everyone smiling and eating and laughing and I imagined that every chair was taken.

I imagined myself at such a grand table, with such a feast. Maybe my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, and her husband were sitting at the head, and all of their children and grandchildren were crowding around, bumping elbows and eagerly talking to each other, myself included. Or maybe it was my husband and I who were at the head of the table. I imagined looking around at the faces of my children, and how I would feel if one of them was missing.

On Mother’s Day, in anticipation of some heavy eating I planned to do later in the day and in order to stay on my training schedule, I planned to go for a quick run in the morning. My kids wanted my attention, it was cold and raining outside, and I didn’t want to go. But I forced myself out the door and ran up the hill toward the cemetery.

When I got to the now-familiar bench, I noticed there was a fresh display of flowers placed there in honor of the day, right on top of the rest of the inscription, which I’d never stopped to read until that morning. It said, “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together. Lucy Mack Smith. Please — no empty chairs.”

I stood there for a minute, in the rain, thinking of the empty chair I’d left at our table and the chairs I want to be sure are forever filled, and it was clear to me what I needed to do.

I turned right back around and ran straight home.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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