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Finding Grace in a Cemetery

Finding Grace in a Cemetery
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Cemeteries hold not only the dead, but also the living.
Photo/Art by Allen Garns
Cemeteries hold not only the dead, but also the living.

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.

Eventually she stood and wiped her tear-stained cheeks. Soon I’d be standing in the Rainbow Bakery, waiting for her to select her own dozen pastries–prune Danish and fig squares–so that I could point out the exact cookie I wanted. Back in Uncle Rum’s car, I’d bite into its thick sweetness, feel the grainy sugar on my tongue.

Outside my window, the familiar streets of my childhood passed slowly by. Down Providence Street and the little white school where my brother and I, my mother and her nine siblings, and even Mama Rose herself had gone. Up Prospect Hill, with its dilapidated, rundown houses at the bottom slowly giving way to the houses built by the immigrants, like Mama Rose’s parents. They had stone walls and lush gardens; grapevines, fig trees, tomato plants spiraled upward on high stakes. Women bustled down the street, their kerchiefed heads bent. Men in sleeveless T-shirts chomped on stogies. Children played. This was life. This was home. As soon as Uncle Rum parked the car, I burst from it, crumbs on my jacket and face, as if I could run from what I’d just seen.

There was a cemetery in the woods behind our house. In this small square bordered by a stone wall, the graves were marked with half-buried, jagged, broken stones. The carving was faded. Beer bottles and cigarette butts littered the area. This cemetery didn’t seem like the ones where Mama Rose took me. The people here had died 100 years ago or more. They were strangers, their names exotic: Jeremiah, Prudence, Isaiah, Abigail. Unlike the Debbies and Kathys and Susans who filled my life, these people were from another era, another world.

My brother Skip and I went there to play. On our way, we had to cut through part of a golf course, and Skip often got sidetracked finding stray balls that he could resell to golfers. But I liked to sit in the cemetery and make up stories about its inhabitants. I populated my stories with infant children lost in epidemics, fathers lost at sea, mothers dead in childbirth. These characters loved passionately and died heroically. If I remembered to bring a trash bag, I picked up all the litter and scraped the dirt from the tombstones, tidying. You like it so much here, I’m going to bury you here when you die, Skip would tease me, his pockets bulging with golf balls. No, I’m going to bury you here! I’d yell back.

In 1982, at the age of 30, Skip died in a household accident. Years before, he had converted to Judaism to marry his Jewish girlfriend. In the shock after his death, forced to find a grave for him, my parents settled on a Jewish cemetery nearby with the help of his by then ex-father-in-law. I didn’t think it was suitable for my agnostic brother, but those cemeteries of my youth lay along roads tangled by years and memory. The old one in the woods was probably gone, mowed down by developers who had built new houses in those woods. So on a hot July morning, we buried my brother right off Route 95, across the street from one of our favorite restaurants, Greg’s. Planes were taking off and landing at the airport down Post Road. None of it seemed right–mostly that my vibrant, funny brother was dead. Does your face hurt? he’d ask me when we were kids. Because it’s killing me! Once he had calculated how old we’d each be in the year 2000. You’ll be 49, you’ll be 49, I’d chanted over and over, an unthinkable age. Old.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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Updated Monday, December 28th, 2009

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