On a good-natured challenge from a friend, I spent last week finding new places to walk. We both find it hard sometimes to get ourselves up and out there, moving. She won the challenge because she found a mountaintop apple orchard and rewarded herself with cider and fried cakes.
But it is only the cider and cake that separate us. I came in a close second because I took rambles through Elmwood Cemetery. On two crisp fall afternoons I explored the cemetery that I have visited all my life, but only on Memorial Day, with sloshing buckets of peonies in the trunk, my mother a bit frazzled, herding her kids.
When my father went along, we sauntered and he’d stop every now and then, remembering the person whose name was on a stone, and he would tell us a good story. He should have been a teacher. He was the master of pith and brevity. He knew when to wrap it up. Something I never learned in all my days in the classroom.
And he was always funny. We learn better if we are laughing, did you know? There are studies.
On my wandering afternoons last week I parked the car at the top of the hill, where we always park, between the big trees. My maternal grandfather had insisted on plots in town, in a perpetual care cemetery, because he was forward-thinking and practical. He knew the vagaries of time would sooner or later take over the old country churchyard cemeteries, the tiny family plots.
A modern cemetery would keep things neat and tidy, would insist on vaults, would create a sense of peace and serenity. Also, I am told, his appetite for extra work on weekends was extremely limited, and the notion of someone else tending the graves suited him just fine.
We aren’t a family to visits the cemetery often. We did Memorial Day, almost too late in the weekend, and that was it. We didn’t decorate for the seasons or birthdays or holidays. My Oklahoma grandmother talked lovingly about Decoration Day, with picnicking and the whole family out there on a windswept plain. I think she secretly longed to recreate such a spectacle at Elmwood, but she never pulled it off.
These days, I try to bring flowers at Christmas, but honestly, I do it more out of a sense of “I should” than a feeling of “I’d like to.” I don’t know if it is cultural, or specific to families, which is a kind of culture, too, but in my family, we don’t take comfort from visiting the grave. I’ve tried to find some communion with my lost loved ones. I might sit for a while, but for me, that is not where I find them.
I’m as apt to have my Granny Opal return to me in her favorite grocery this time of year. Seeing turkeys piled up brings her to me in a way her headstone does not. Thanksgiving was her thing, our thing, and the scent of fresh celery puts me in her late November kitchen and I am four, eight, thirteen years old and reading recipes aloud as she gathers bowls and spices. I still buy my celery for the Thanksgiving dressing in the exact same store. Every year. In small everyday places I find my people.
But roaming Elmwood I found my Uncle Billy and Aunt Jean, buried as they are in a different part of the cemetery. For some reason I didn’t know where to find them. Graveside services always disorient me, and nothing seems familiar. Now I see them all the time, conjure them each time I pass their stone. And other family, too, distant relatives I never heard of. I take photos of the names and dates and when I remember I send them to my cousin, Jan, because she is the family historian and she wants them.
Walking the winding pathways of Elmwood I see the parents of friends, can tell by the headstones which parent has died, can tell by a blank space under the birthdate, which parent is still with us. I wander over to Potter’s Field, nothing more than a wide expanse of grass now. The plaque tells us it is possible more than a thousand men, women and children are buried there.
I’ve wandered cemeteries all my life, but never my own. Far from sad or morbid, I find a peace and comfort there, a wistful connection to time, and people. The ones beneath fine monuments. The ones beneath my feet in Potter’s Field. A connection, less to be understood, and more to be felt, in a slowing of steps, a sigh perhaps. The passing of day in the sun on my face, the order of stones, facing the same way, except for the ones that don’t. Those there, facing east, while most face south. This one, knocked a bit sideways,. This one, a corner buried, engraving worn and unreadable. Granite and crumbling stone. Ordered and disordered, the way we are in life.
Here there are trees that will be green in winter. And oaks, beech. Elmwood drapes over the highest spot in town, festooned with pathways like so much ribbon on a party dress, around and around and around. Stones wink in the late day sun. A place benevolent and quiet. The wind comes to such places, high as it is, but knows how to behave. Starlings murmurating in widening nets above the trees, but they, too, keep it down, leaving us with our thoughts.