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Finding Grace in a Cemetery

Finding Grace in a Cemetery
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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.

My mother went to that cemetery daily. After Mama Rose’s death, she had taken over the role of gravekeeper. I was never sure how diligently she tended those graves; I didn’t want or need to know. From time to time she’d mention that she’d been to the cemeteries and that she felt better for having gone. With my brother’s death, she became vigilant in the care of his grave.

That cemetery sits so close to the exit off the highway for so many things we do weekly: discount stores, Greg’s, plane trips. Each time we drive past it, even now, my mother cranes her neck to find Skip’s grave among the countless ones there. As for me, I never went back after the funeral. Perhaps it was all those Sunday trips to cemeteries with Mama Rose that had turned me away from the idea that visiting graves brings us closer to our loved ones. Perhaps it was a cynicism that took root in me after my brother died. I can’t say for sure. But even when my father died in 1997 and we buried him in the veterans’ cemetery, I didn’t visit his grave. Once, on a gray afternoon when my missing him grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go, I drove there. I stared at his name on the headstone and tried to feel something: better or different. But I felt only the sadness I’d felt since he’d died.

When the unthinkable happened five years later and my own 5-year-old daughter, Grace, died suddenly from a virulent form of strep, I was thrown into the world of cemeteries and funeral parlors, forced to make decisions while my feet dragged across a kitchen floor still covered in glitter from an art project she’d done less than 48 hours earlier. My husband and I had to choose a casket, a cemetery, a gravesite. Can you do this? I asked him. Not only could he do it, but by doing it he took some form of solace. He could help our child in these final parental decisions. I could not. Looking back, I suppose I could pretend it wasn’t real if I didn’t have to choose the small white coffin, or tour the cemetery in search of the best spot to leave my daughter. My husband’s ability to do these things, and to do them well and with love, remains one of the bravest things I’ve ever witnessed.

Swan Point Cemetery here in Providence is beautiful. That first spring when I moved here from New York City, Lorne and I would stroll its curving paths, beneath pink dogwood blossoms, and read the names on the older stones, choosing which ones we liked for our own, unborn children. A picture of me from that spring sits on a bookshelf in our home: The blossoms are dazzling, and I see in my own eyes the hope and optimism of new love, of a future that seems bright and happy.

Lorne took our children, Sam and Grace, bike riding in Swan Point. He pointed out all the graves of the dignitaries buried there, governors and writers and historic figures. Sometimes they played hide-and-seek among the majestic stones. On another, later, spring day, he drove me down the winding roads, pointing to a spot on a hill, another nestled in trees. Through his tears, he talked about the beauty and virtue of each. Whatever you want, I said, because in that moment there was no perfect spot for Grace except back home with us, where she belonged.

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