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Finding Grace in a Cemetery

Finding Grace in a Cemetery
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I grew up in cemeteries. One Sunday afternoon a month, after Mass, after the midday meal of lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs, my grandmother visited the dead. Mama Rose never learned to drive, so her cousin–Uncle Rum–took her from graveyard to graveyard in his square green Ford. I didn’t have a choice; when Mama Rose ordered us to do something, we did it. My reward for an afternoon tending graves with my grandmother was a sugar cookie from the Rainbow Bakery in Cranston, six or seven miles northeast of our small town of West Warwick, in central Rhode Island.

We went to two cemeteries: an old hilly one behind a church and a more modern one with tombstones laid out in neat, orderly rows. As a child, the drive between the two stretched endlessly, my sugar cookie a far-off treat. But now, knowing that my grandmother didn’t travel far from home (except on her yearly autumn trip to Massachusetts to see the fall foliage along the Mohawk Trail), I imagine they probably only sat at opposite ends of town.

At home, Mama Rose cooked and cleaned with great purpose. Our weekly meals appeared in a familiar pattern of soup on Monday, pasta on Tuesday, a roast–beef or pork–on Wednesday, chops–veal or pork–on Thursday, and something meatless on Friday. Saturday meant boiled frankfurters with beans or homemade pizza and spinach pies. She didn’t appear to take joy in the preparation of our family dinners. Rather, she muttered and moaned as she went through the familiar steps. Hot oil bubbled and splattered in her frying pans, leaving little burn marks up and down her arms. She wore them like merit badges, evidence of how she suffered to feed us. At dinner, she pronounced each roast, each meatball, each bowl of potatoes or green beans, no good. Underdone, overdone, too much salt … none of her labors came out to her satisfaction.

Not so her work on the graves. There, she dug and clipped, watered and deadheaded, until she was satisfied. The graves of her loved ones would be beautiful. Anyone passing any of them would see the care that someone had taken to honor this person, to make this place lovely.

These monthly visits bored me. If Mama Rose forgot about me, I stayed in Uncle Rum’s car with WPRO, the local AM pop radio station, turned on low. I closed my eyes and breathed in the cherry tobacco scent from Uncle Rum’s pipe, humming along with Herman’s Hermits or the Monkees until Mama Rose and Uncle Rum returned.

Usually, though, I was required to tag along behind them. I averted my eyes from the other people in the cemetery, black-clad mourners at newly dug graves; the old ladies fingering rosary beads; the solitary awkward person kneeling stiffly at a stone. Grief and its members made me nervous and afraid. Growing up Italian, I heard my share of stories about witches and ghosts, deathbed dramas, brutal accidents in which cars plunged into icy rivers and children went up in flames. My bedtime stories were filled with images of a young boy buried in his Cub Scout uniform, a baby born with the cord wrapped tightly around her neck. We are all soldiers in grief, my grandmother seemed to want to tell me. But I bowed my head and tried not to breathe the dirt and flower smell of the cemetery.

At her mother’s and her husband’s graves, Mama Rose remained stoic. Just as she approached her cooking, armed with a wooden spoon and a frown, she approached these graves. Uncle Rum toted the plants; Mama Rose marched forward with the spade and the watering can. I lagged behind. When she finished, she stayed on her knees and prayed silently. Then she stood, wiped her hands on her skirt in a kind of That’s that motion, and waved for Uncle Rum to follow her. Sometimes she remembered some distant relative buried nearby, and Uncle Rum carefully drove up and down each path until her memory triggered and she’d yell for him to stop. At those graves, she simply said a prayer and took a survey of how well kept they were, something she reported to us when she got back in the car. It doesn’t look like her daughter comes here at all, she might say, clucking her tongue and shaking her head.

But at the graves of her children, Mama Rose was not methodical or calm. She’d had 10 children–seven girls and three boys–and lost a son and a daughter as adults. I knew the details of their deaths as well as I knew that I would have soup for dinner on Monday and pasta on Tuesday. Her daughter Ann, my namesake, had died at the age of 23, during routine surgery to extract her wisdom teeth. Her son, whom we all called Uncle Brownie but to whom she referred as Tony, had died of a heart attack on Valentine’s Day when I was 3.

I dreaded these visits. Mama Rose pounded the ground and cursed God, raising her fist to the sky as if someone were actually watching. She threw herself onto the graves, tracing their names with her wrinkled hands and sobbing. She dug with a ferocity, jamming the plants into the upturned earth. Dirt filled the creases in her fingers and palms and under her nails. I couldn’t bear to watch.

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