beloved mother, dear sister

I visited my mother’s grave for the first time since her burial in 1992. 

There are perhaps two or three things in the whole world about which I am not overly sentimental. A cemetery, I had explained to my friend, P., is one of them. 

“Do you know,” I went on, to prove my point, “that I have not even been to my mother’s grave since she died?”

“Well that,” she says slowly, “seems borderline pathological.”

I relay this to my aunt, my mother’s youngest sister, as preface to my request over breakfast. 

“I haven’t been there very often either,” she says, supportively. 

So we go, the three of us: my aunt, my sister and me. We leave my sister’s husband and their kids to the pool for the afternoon, and head north to Hawthorne, right up to the Gates of Heaven, tucked behind the platform for the Mt. Pleasant train station stop. 

My aunt (“A”) remembers that she is in Section 38. We don’t bother with a map, just drive right past the main office. A. drives fast, too fast, then stops hard - over and over through the sprawling grounds.There is no sense or order to the lay out. Section 40, then 48, then 36, then 28: someone’s fevered dream of numbering. 

My sister (“D”) in the back seat, complains she’s going to be ill. She opens the back window, hangs her head out.

“Let’s go back for a map,” I suggest.

Section 38 is on a small hill, and the headstones face each other, perpendicular to the road, in neat rows. It is hot, the air is so still and heavy, and the grass is dry under our sandals, crunching. “There wasn’t always a paved path here,” A. says. “You used to have to walk up here through the ice, the snow, whatever there was.”

D. says: “Did you see that over there? Seven people all died at the same time. A family. All the names barely fit on the one stone.”

I am the first one to spot it. 

The stone is lovely, I think, the carved flowers, the simple cross. It is more embellished than I would have expected, but I find this comforting. 

I look up from the stone, look around - headstones, in neat rows, as far as you can see.

I find myself swallowing hard at the grave site. I notice a small dark space beneath the stone. I imagine the stone being lifted and taken to be carved, then returned, hundreds, thousands of times, this act repeated. What bone-wearying work this must be. 

We don’t speak in front of the headstone much.

In addition to the expected potted plants and cellophane-wrapped flowers, we see a few headstones in front of which people have dug small beds for perennials. A sedum grows lush and tall, obscuring its stone. Hostas surround another. 

“This really is a beautiful cemetery,” A. says, unable to bear the stillness. “You know there are even celebrities here? Not all together, of course, but in different places.” She doesn’t say who, and we don’t ask. 

I think about coming back in the early fall with a pink knockout rose from Jackson & Perkins. A “double-beauty” with its bright, large blooms in June. I catalog what I’d need to bring with me: shovel, potting soil, bone meal. I wonder what the soil is like here, but don’t dwell on that too long: I know I will not be back. 

There is a sound of a distant plane overhead as we walk back to the car. 

As we drive out, A. pulls over near a corner plot, over which stands an enormous stone carving of an angel, surrounded by six sections of stone, covered with names. The angel statue, the stones around it - overwhelming in its scale. There must be hundreds of names. They appear to be organized by year and judging by the objects left there - stuffed animals, baby shoes, an impossibly small dress - this plot is for children. There is no sign or explanation, and we speculate. She says tentatively, maybe from 9/11? But I think immediately: Orphanage. I don’t know that this is true, but mercifully, there is a car behind us, and we move on. As we drive past, we see that the names continue around the back of the stones as well. 

On the ride back, the sky is the palest blue. Robin’s egg blue, my mother might have called it. “I once had a suit the color of a robin’s egg,” I can hear her saying. Some of her favorite colors to talk about: chocolate brown. robin’s egg blue. buttercup yellow.

We don’t talk about my mother or even about the cemetery much. I am in the back seat this time, and I listen as A. and D. catalog the burial of pets - their own and those of the people they know. D. says her son (now 9) makes the signs for each pet who passes. “Between the hermit crabs and the hamsters, my whole backyard is a graveyard.”