Tuesday, June 15, 1999
You keep hearing about people getting jobs, or raises, or simply not being fired just because they know where the bodies are buried. In my family, not only have we lost track of where we came from, we also don’t know where we’ve gone.
I know where my dad’s buried, not only because Mom goes there a lot, but because it’s near a roller-skating rink I used to use in junior high. And if we dig through my father’s old desk, we can probably find certificates locating the graves of my grandparents and several great-aunts. But the rest of the family? Go fish.
“Who’s on Staten Island?” I asked my mother as we were driving to Dad’s cemetery.
“Staten Island?” she stalled.
She was driving, both because she knew all the shortcuts, and had a legitimate disabled parking pass.
“Yeah. We used to take Grandma there to visit.”
Visit was the family euphemism for going to the cemetery.
“Her mother?” Mom guessed.
“No, I think Molly’s with Grampa Murray.”
Which would piss ’em both off, seeing they never liked each other.
“Her sister?” my mother went on.
“That makes sense.”
My grandmother’s sister Jean was my godfather’s wife. Though Jean wasn’t my godmother, that honor going to my favorite great-aunt, Ella.
“It might be Aunt Sarah on Staten Island,” my mother continued.
“Why would Grandma visit her?”
“Who knows what your grandmother thought?”
Sarah was my grandfather’s sister. But if Grampa couldn’t stand his mother-in-law, he wasn’t much fonder of his wife. Though they never divorced, he and my grandmother lived apart most of their marriage. So there’s little reason to think she’d visit his dead relatives.
And now, we can’t find any of them.
As opposed to my dad. Though his cemetery was the subway at rush hour—and I don’t mean live crowds. Yeah, there were several people toting flowers, and a handful of cars parked on roads barely wide enough to be paths. And whenever a funeral came by, all the cars had to move—the value of my mothers parking permit.
But this was no Under the wide and starry sky. You had just enough room for a headstone, maybe a footstone, and a clump of perpetually-cared for grass.
My father had a double plot with my mom. That would irritate his mother, who’s probably twenty miles away, but at least it kept mine happy for a while. After that, it’s up for grabs.
We parked some distance from the grave, then walked, Tom and I following my mom. You had to step on other people’s plots to get to where you wanted, which crosses so many metaphors it’s hard to keep track. You could try not to, hope to be polite. But the best you could really do was pray that relatives of the folks buried next to yours weren’t visiting at the same time.
And you had to sit on someone’s headstone if you wanted to rest. Kneel on someone’s chest to try and weed. There was, and probably still is, a granite bench on one of the plots I used to visit as a child—because a tree planted as memorial had covered one of the unused sites. But rather than dig it up, someone decided to add the bench.
Those plots were bigger too, and not just because I was small. I guess there were fewer dead people then. Now, for lack of space, there are lots of cremations. In fact, my great-aunt Ella, my godmother, was cremated. There was an awful moment at her funeral when my distraught grandmother—her closest sister—wailed, “She looks so pretty. I don’t want to burn her.”
I have no idea where Ella’s ashes were scattered. They’re probably still in my mother’s basement.
We also used to visit people’s graves more often. Or maybe my grandmother did, and because my father was volunteered to drive, my sister and I tagged along. There was no sense of mourning about it. Maybe because Marilyn and I didn’t know any of the dead people, it was fun. Of course, when someone we actually knew died, we weren’t allowed to go to the funeral.
Dad’s funeral had been informal: there was no religion; my mother spoke; I said a stilted piece; David played a song. Marilyn and Mike didn’t plan to say anything, though Marilyn eventually talked for a while. And my mother chose my dad’s cemetery because it was close to home.
She clearly planned to visit, and gets there at least once a month. My father was a sentimental man, and Mom obviously adored him. There are now more pictures of him around the house than there ever were when he was alive.
“He always hated being cold,” she told me as we started to leave. “He’d just hate being down there.”
After visiting my father, we stopped by my mom’s mom, buried in the same cemetery. On her headstone had been engraved the tag line to an old family story. When my grandmother was young, and my mother and her sister even younger, they’d all gotten lost on a train. Too confused to plan any other way home, and not confidant enough to ask strangers, my grandmother finally—brightly—smiled, pointed across the narrow aisle, and whispered to her scared children what was now carved above her grave.
“We shall follow the gypsies.”