Visiting the Graves

 


prayers at the graveWhen we were kids, my sister and I went to the cemetery with our mother and aunt every Memorial Day, though it didn’t mean much to us, young as we were. We mostly danced among the graves, and dashed happily off to fill the dented metal watering can at the leaky old faucet. And anyway our dead had been dead for so long, the mother of our mom only 31 when she was buried there in 1910, her unborn baby in her arms.

 

Then time passed as time will do and I guess I was almost grown when I noticed that we weren’t going to the cemetery so much anymore, even though our mother and aunt’s own dad now also lay beside his dead young wife.  “Is it because we moved an hour north of Boston and Holyhood is too hard to get to?” I asked Aunt Grace one day as we stood in the dining room of our childhood home.

“That’s not it,” she replied. “It’s because they aren’t there,” she said, and then repeated the declaration with a strange passion I had never before seen in her: “They aren’t THERE!” she said again, as if to suggest that any fool knows the dead travel to a place infinitely farther than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.

Was that why we weren’t going to the graves so much anymore? Because nothing was really down there but clay? Or dust? Or whatever remains behind aside from the metal hasps of the coffin? And if that is the case, then why, all these years later, do I still stand again at that grave and picture them all just a few feet below me? 

I see my mother and aunt in their favorite Sunday outfits. I see my grandfather with his dark eyebrows. I see the young woman whom I should have known as my grandmother lying in the high-necked Gibson-Girl-style dress they would have chosen for her back at the start of the last century. But what good comes of these vigils? I wondered at the time.

And then one day I saw a young woman sitting on the grass of a soldier’s fresh and flag-decked grave. She was there when I came by at noon and she was there when I came again at 6:00. This was one month after we buried our last remaining elder who over the last six years of his life became in many ways my closest friend. In the long quiet days since that passing I studied countless snapshots of him – as a schoolboy in the 1920s, as a young man starting out in life and then suddenly in the South Pacific during the worst of the fighting there in World War II. I hadn’t even understood his part in that war until the day, almost 70 years later when he shyly handed me a notebook of poems and sketches he wrote from the front.

Then another day, which was a day just last week, I visited the place here pictured overlooking Omaha Beach where lie 9,387 of the fallen, almost all of whom died on June 6, 1944 and in the 100 days after as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy:

amercian cemetery normandy

I was with a group of about 80 people. In the impromptu ceremony  held for us, an offcial of the park asked any veterans among us to come up front and join her. About 15 people did and when she then read the poem written by a young man in combat just before his own death in Lebanon, one of our veterans wept openly.

That might have been the moment I first really understood what Memorial Day is and why we mark it.

Here then to “the lost” as they were called in that first awful World War, and to the man with the tears running down his  face and to  my own family’s veteran, gone now too under the earth young as he once was and full of life.

ed in the jungle heat  

 

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Visiting the Graves

mt. auburn cemetry springWondering about what Memorial Day means to people nowadays, I conducted a small-scale poll find out. “Another Monday off,” three people told me. “The start of summer,” reported two others.  

Time was, the day meant more. Time was, it marked a time to pay respects at the graves of the dead, lying quiet now under that ‘rafter of satin and roof of stone’ Emily Dickinson speaks of.

I told a friend about my research and she said she figured almost nobody saw it in the former way now. “Just maybe the old-timers.”

So  call me an old-timer then; because every day I think of the dead, and every day I feel death’s silent swoosh, as if a great black curtain were rushing shut above me.

I saw a dead bird in the yard, its stiff body propped oddly erect somehow, its small head resting on the soil, as if listening still for breakfast. I saw a tree on a twisting road with a spray of flowers tied to it, signifying someone had died there, hitting it in his car. Outside a funeral home, I saw two people stood holding each other. Not moving. Not hurrying to break apart, or giving small pats. Not even speaking, but only holding each other as they stood and stood. And I saw all these things in one 90-minute period.

The man I love lost his father young. when he was 13 and in his sorrow so long-unexpressed, he found he could not speak his father’s name or go to visit his grave. But his mother went sometimes, and when I came into the family she took me too.

Then I began taking myself there. When our last baby came and he a boy-child, I took him there, not yet a month in this world. Eventually, our two other children learned where it was, the daughter 14 and the daughter eleven. The older one would bike there sometimes to sit and draw. 

One fine spring evening when the whole family mobilized for a dinner out, the hour came and we could not find this older daughter.  “Let’s try the cemetery,” her younger sister suggested, and so we drove there.

Once inside its gates, we looked and looked, but plainly she was elsewhere.

Then her younger sister the eleven-year-old did a fine brave thing. “Park the car,” she told her dad.

“Let’s get out a minute,” she said. She circled the vehicle and took him then by the hand.

“Come,” she said simply. “I will take you to your Papa.”

And so she did. And I tell you as the woman who has loved this man long and long, then with his hair all dark and now with his hair all silver, that a change began in him that very day.

Was it finally facing that first death, or just being so gently invited to? We didn’t know. All we knew who loved him best was that a sadness deep inside him started lifting.

In denying death, we somehow deny ourselves life and live diminished. For do we not all sense that it is life’s completion? That death is but a door, through which we all will one day walk – and who knows what adventure awaits us there?

Hope in Dark Times

mt-auburn-treeA cousin of mine was getting married and some of us relatives were sitting over the remains of breakfast at our out-of-town hotel, the wedding party having been long since whisked away to endure the final lacquer-and-buff-job deemed necessary before such a momentous event. The rest of us didn’t have to worry as  mere guests; people who, if we appeared at all in the day’s pictures, would appear from behind, or shuffling  though the receiving line, or shot from the side in  mid-step on the dance floor.

Thus, we were killing time and lingering over our toast crusts when an older relative said something I have never forgotten

His remark came out of the blue, it seemed, as we spoke in a casual way about the news of the world.

“I’m glad my time here is nearly done!” he declared hotly. “It’s all falling apart now – anyone can see that.  I hate to think what’s coming!” Then he ducked his head and took a loud sip of coffee.

I was shocked that he spoke this bleak sentiment aloud, all the more so because he spoke it within earshot of our young people at an adjacent table.

I wanted to suggest suicide to the guy if things looked so bad to him. I wanted to help him commit it, I was so mad – because nothing seems more destructive to me than for an adult to speak despairingly of the future.

We adults have many tasks, one being what custom calls the Maintenance of the World. This means it is up to us to safeguard and protect what was built by those living before us. If we think of what we are maintaining as a graceful structure, erected over many decades as the great cathedrals were erected, then our job becomes one of standing guard over it. Ensuring its soundness. Lovingly restoring it as necessary. Our job is certainly not to declare it condemned and scuttle away, predicting imminent collapse.

We approach this Memorial Day as a nation still at war, as at war we may well remain if global acts of terrorism continues to be committed.

Thus the easy if less imaginative outlook to take is the dark one.

But I am encouraged by something Joel Meyerowitz said five years after the events of September 11, 2001.

Joel is the man who shot thousands of pictures at Ground Zero; who was there all through the discovery of the body parts that in the end accounted for less than half of the day’s victims on that site. Joel in fact was the only photographer allowed unrestricted access to Ground Zero immediately following the attack.

I heard him say in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, let’s rebuild on that awful site, sure. But let’s plant trees there too, one for each victim, set in the earth in the same clusters where the remains were discovered.

Trees, he said. Sources of oxygen, as he put it.

Memorial Day is here again and we have many to mourn, God knows; many on whose graves we might lay wreaths.

It’s the custom in this country to bring flowering plants to the graves of the people we have lost, though most of them are soon cleared away by the cemeteries’ grounds crews.

So let’s now try what Joel suggested. Like Noah after the Flood, let’s plant anew.

Trees, yes. Trees at every site of devastation. New trees at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, for example. But let’s plant seeds of hope too, and weed out all despair even as we honor all our fallen.

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This Day of Remembrance

We always went to the cemetery with our mother and aunt, my sister Nan and I, though it didn’t mean much to us, young as we were. We mostly danced among the graves, and dashed happily off to fill the dented metal watering can at the leaky old spigot.

Anyway, our dead had been dead for so long, the mother of our mother just letters etched on granite and never mind that I bore her name. Never mind that my sister looked just like that poor doomed girl who died so young, along with her equally doomed and stillborn child.

Then the years passed as the years will do and I guess I was around 20 when I noticed that we weren’t going to the cemetery so much anymore, though by now our mother and aunt’s father also lay in that grave.

“Is it because we moved an hour north and the place is too hard to get to on the busy holiday?” I asked our Aunt Grace one day as we she and I stood in the dining room of my childhood home. “That’s not it,” she said right away. “It’s because they aren’t there,” she went on and then repeated the declaration with a strange passion I had never before seen in her. “They’re NOT THERE!” she said again, as if to suggest that any fool knows the dead travel to a place infinitely farther than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.

Was that why we weren’t going to the graves so much anymore?  Because nothing was really down there but clay? Or dust? Or whatever remains behind aside from the metal hasps of the coffins? And if that were the case, then why, all these years later, do I still stand again at that grave and picture them all just a few feet below me? I see our mother in that pale lavender suit she so loved; our grandfather with his dark eyebrows; the young lady I should have known as my grandmother lying in the high-necked Gibson-Girl-style dress they would have chosen for her back in 1910.

What good can come of these vigils? Two years ago I saw a young woman sitting on the grass of a soldier’s fresh and flag-decked grave. She was there when I came by at noon and she was there when I came again at 6:00.

It seems we process death by degrees and each in our own way.

Myself I have found over the past weeks that when I think of  our final elder who left us just last month, I do not think of Heavenly realms and eternal reward, in spite of the fierce faith I saw lived out in my family of origin. I think of that man as I knew him over the last six years of his life when he became in many ways my closest friend.

In the long quiet days since his passing I have studied countless snapshots of him – in Latin School in the 30s, in the South Pacific in the 40s, in college on the GI Bill in the early 50s – and am newly in awe at all that a life can contain. I even imagine that I’m beginning to understand what Aunt Grace meant that day: The dead really aren’t ‘there’ under the ground. Rather they are all around us, not farther but infinitely nearer than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.

a bouquet and my grandmother, dead at 31