My mother stood behind her brother and sister-in-law watching them mourn their two long-dead children. He stood with his arm around his wife’s shoulders, her head down, Kleenex dabbing under her glasses. They were in a graveyard, a brief stop on a nostalgia tour for my mom, visiting all her old hometowns in Iowa and Wisconsin during the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Witnessing her brother weeping, she was uncomfortably wedged between tombstones and second hand grief.
Following the visit, she wrote to me and said “I’ve never been in a cemetery in my life!” She was nearly 70 years old when she wrote this letter. The rare use of an exclamation point told me the dismay she felt. But her sister-in-law was a mid-west tornado when it came to taking charge and Mom couldn’t have avoided it even if there had been a root cellar for her to escape to.
I am mystified. How did my mother reach the age of 70 without ever being in a graveyard? This means she didn’t attend her father’s funeral. Or of friends killed in World War II. Or beloved old aunts and uncles. Somehow she avoided grieving.
At five years old, my daughter was fascinated with death, dying, and the dead, especially those buried in our local graveyard. The fascination began close to Easter when the kindergarten class at her Catholic school was being prepped for the culminating days of the Christian calendar. For someone not of the faith – of any faith – I always approach the Easter season like a rubbernecker at a car crash. I want to look, but I don’t want to look. But when my daughter came home from school upset on that Holy Thursday following the lurid description of Jesus nailed to a cross, blood soaking the wood, moaning and delirious, pleading to his father – a father whose job is to protect and love – and then die in agony, we put an end to Good Friday. We avoided that wreck for years. But she’d been imprinted with a fascination with gore forever. My innocent child had been introduced to death – violent death – by the holy Catholic church.
From there, we moved on to conversations about Christian death about which she was taught that following the resurrection of Christ, the faithful would be restored in new, incorruptible bodies – like a car treated with anti-rust coating. I was at a loss to explain this divine act and tried to compare it to reconstituted frozen orange juice. It seemed to satisfy her at the time.
That was when she asked to visit a graveyard. Our local hallowed ground is a square bordered by townhouses and city streets and enclosed by a chain link fence. It looks harmless, like a well-lit sepulcher. Occasionally, however, the perimeter is breached by an out of control car that zips over the sidewalk, and splits the thin barrier between life and death, and stops just a few feet from a headstone. One morning, we examined deep tire ruts in the grass, fresh chlorophyll leaking from ripped sod, and the torn fence with its tubing protruding like exhumed bones. We talked about the driver who must have screamed a 60 mile an hour prayer as he hurtled face forward toward a granite memorial.
Another bright morning, when the grass was newly green and dew soaked our shoes, she and I rolled the stroller carrying her little sister into the grounds, leaving damp footprints behind us – our escape route. This was the first of many mornings spent reading gravestones. She was drawn to the large markers – looming stone angels, weeping cherubs, and brooding Celtic crosses – the drama of death. I listened to her chatter like a cricket about all the dead people surrounding us as cars whizzed by and dogs barked, occasionally glancing at the road, listening for the squeal of tires – just in case.
Eventually, the obsession passed. Good Friday lost its grisly grip. But when she was ten, we were at a special event at Canada’s national cemetery. It was for the announcement of winners of an art contest sponsored by a Christian radio station and it was held in a well-decorated function room (nice euphemism, eh?). Soothing pastels with soft lighting supported the big picture windows overlooking the venerated dead neatly arranged under maples, muscled oaks, and beeches. She won first prize. Surrounded by the business of death, she was a winner.
In a mountain town in British Columbia, a municipal graveyard lies on a stunning plateau bordered by a forest and a plunging ravine. On summer evenings, we star gazed there during the Perseid’s meteor showers, lying on a grassy mattress, shrieking “There’s one! Oh! Another!” counting the wagging tails of light above us. At other times, we played hide and seek among the tombstones, crouched behind little markers and ran tiptoe across the dead, leaping out to startle the one who is “it” and be home-free.
My mother died in this town but she wasn’t buried in the mountain cemetery where people go for evening walks to stargaze or to play hide-and-seek. Instead she was cremated, her ashes scattered off a wild, wind shorn beach on Vancouver Island.
Her hospital room overlooked the arm of a glacially cold lake and mountains covered in blotched November clouds. Sometimes they lifted just enough to show snow graced peaks. Under the hospital window, pine trees tops floated, decapitated by mist. This view is my last memory of her, no less a marker, no less a cemetery.
Why my mother was so afraid of cemeteries or appalled by public displays of grief, I don’t know. She wanted none of it when she died. Maybe she thought she was sparing us from a painful ritual. And if there was no grave, there could be no crying, no clenched Kleenexes, no water pooling in eyeglasses.