Marjorie stood with Ron in front of Dolores’s gravestone. It had a curved sandstone top, name and dates: February 10, 1909 – June 12, 1934. Not so very long at all. Ron stared into the grass hoping to feel something else growing there.
Marjorie said, “Let’s say a prayer.”
They recited the Lord’s Prayer. At the end Ron felt cold air. Marjorie said, “Let’s go back to the car.”
Ron said, “I never met her.”
“She’s still part of you.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you’ll learn, but maybe not. Sometimes there is no way to know what’s real and what’s fiction. Sometimes even if you have been there.”
“Why do I have to come here?”
Marjorie recoiled. “I didn’t realize that you felt forced.”
“You make me come here and I don’t know anything about her. I feel good visiting Gramm’s grave. I’m sorry that your mother was so sick for so long. I just don’t know who my grandmother was.”
The truth was that Marjorie did not either. She came searching for memories that sometimes surfaced. She brought Ron along because he made her feel safer. “She was my mother. I was only nine when she died.”
A flash of anguish spread along Ron’s neck and shoulders. “That’s older than I am now.”
“She was very sick.”
“But you are sad.”
Marjorie felt the tears leave her eyes. She saw her son watch her cry. She felt his longing to help her although he was mostly ill-equipped. He was a boy. He was her son. That was not his job. The wind blew up from the golf course and over the graves.
Then they drove along a slow winding curve of graves and pulled up by the tree with the metal screen, garbage can under it. In front of Mina’s gravestone, Ron said, “I loved her so much but I hurt her.”
“So did I,” said Marjorie.
“I let her fall. I let her trip over me. I did it on purpose and I don’t know why, but I can see it happening, again and again, but it only happened that once and I still see it over and over.”
“It was a bad thing that you did.”
“I don’t want to have to see the bad things over and over in my mind.”
“Then you have to learn to forget,” said Marjorie.
Ron felt tears on his cheeks. “I don’t think that I can.”
It was a sturdy granite gravestone. It was a good plot. There was room for three more and they knew who they would be and were comfortable with the arrangement, even if it was an arrangement of futility that was designed to bring some fantasy comfort to the living.
Marjorie felt lost among the living sometimes. It was so much easier to be with the dead. They didn’t change. They didn’t decide that you were not good enough and pack up and leave to go be with someone else. Only the living did that.
Ron ran his fingers over the dates, 1879-1957. She had been born so long ago and he was only alive for a small fraction of her life. She taught him to read from the bible, a book that he had stopped reading. Her father was a minister in North Adams, Massachusetts. She never spoke about her husband. She felt timid almost like someone who had been abused or who had failed, around her daughters.
Ron gripped the stone and gave his warmth to it. He hoped that being dead wasn’t sad for her. They turned and walked back to the running car. Marjorie thought that at least her son had told her his dark secret. The heater made Ron feel hot. This visit was over.
The passing scene seemed like TV through the window glass. They went back the long way. That meant South Broad Street and where Ron’s dad worked, and passed the church where he was baptized. It was boarded up, silenced. He only vaguely remembered the street where Marjorie told him that they once lived.
There was a broken wooden railing and a porch with a roof that sagged. He had glimpses but nothing that fit together. And as the car moved, Ron had the feeling that it was moving into another time.
The rain fell like tears, there was a warm breeze that swept against the people who gathered over the newly dug grave. Ron was cried out. Marjorie was frightened. After the kind minister delivered his words and people got up to leave, Ron waited. He needed to bear witness. He wanted to be there to see her body lowered into its grave.
Her casket was bronze. It would keep everything out. Ron told himself that what was inside could not really decay because she had been embalmed. Ron wondered if the embalming removed her soul. Would they know what to do with her soul? Would they know where it was and whether to preserve it or set it free? What would she want? He wanted to talk to her just one more time. They had spoken of her dying often, but they had never discussed an afterlife. Or if there was one.
Ron wondered about that. He looked at his mother and for one of the first times he saw that she would not know how to have this discussion. His Aunt Dottie had died. There wasn’t anyone else with whom to have that discussion.
They lowered it by hand with ropes. Ron thought that there would be some machine, a winch of some sort. The casket swayed as it was lowered and Ron’s spirit tried to protect her from any further disturbance. He did not feel foolish. It was absurd but he still felt connected to her. The workmen shoveled the dirt on top of the casket. There were three of them and it did not take long. The gravestone was yet to be amended.
Maybe cremation was better but maybe, if the soul was still present, cremation would be a manifestation of the fires of hell. Were those really the choices, rotting or burning? Ron was sure that he did not wish to be cremated.
Marjorie looked out the car window at Ron sitting there. He was very still, which was not his way. She knew that he was paying attention to every detail. The shovels filled with dirt fell like ratifying punches that pronounced her death again and again. Ron thought it felt like inculcation. The repetition of a times table. The recitation of a Sunday school piece. The dirt splashed and then packed and grew deeper.
For some truly ridiculous reason, Ron heard Bob Dylan’s voice singing, “I’ll stand over your grave and make sure that you’re dead.” But that wasn’t what this was. This was quiet and without anger. This was a sadness that would never go away.
Marjorie trembled. She had never seen her son this way. Then she shuddered more deeply. This was the woman that she had wanted to be her mother. She has even asked if Dottie was really her mother.
“I wish that I was,” said Dorothy. “But look at this picture. Is there any doubt about who your mother was?”
Marjorie looked. There wasn’t any doubt. But the history of her family was so riddled with lies. Maybe there should be a doubt.
Visiting the graves was a ritual. They would start with Mina and Dorothy. Later, Anita and her husband Michael would be added to fill out the plot. Perpetual Care was not all that it was cracked up to be and so they would tend, and plant things that would bloom in the springtime.
Marjorie was particularly comforted to watch her second husband George get down on his knees and dig into the dirt of her family. Ron wondered if what grew was connected to what was beneath. The caskets were constructed so that nothing could get in and he wondered if that meant that nothing could get out.
He looked back at his mother, who stood and watched George huff as he dug and at her son, who crouched and held his right hand on the gravestone. He was always quiet here.
When Marjorie said, “Don’t the flowers look beautiful?”
George dug and wanted to get the job done and Ron nodded.
“I really think that the cemetery should have to do this,” said Marjorie.
“Tell me about it,” grunted George.
Ron didn’t respond. He was deep inside searching for voices, for images, for some sense of contact. His mother was a necessary distraction at these times. He would not come here if it were not for her. And yet he wanted her to leave him alone when they were there.
At Dolores’ grave, Ron got down on his knees and cleaned it. George stayed in the car. Ron looked up feeling nothing and confused by that feeling. “Maybe I can get to know her from cleaning her grave, ” said Ron.
The search for Mina’s husband’s grave often ended in defeat. Somehow they could rarely find it. Marjorie cursed George silently, during these times. Rocky had always known where it was. Ron wondered if Mina and Dorothy had come to visit this elusive grave. He did not wonder about Anita but he knew that he should.
They were on their way to family dinner. Ron’s wife, Celeste, said that she wanted to visit her mother’s grave. Ron knew how to get there and they stopped at a florist’s shop that was close and catered to this clientele.
It was a cold afternoon and the sun was fading when they arrived at her grave with a plant that looked a bit mal-nourished. Ron dug it into the ground while Celeste cleaned off stray leaves and tried to make things neater and prettier. They said a prayer but Ron could tell that the spell of the prayer did not enter his wife.
Back in the car and driving along the tight curves that led out, Celeste said, “I wish that I felt more when I came here.” Then she pointed and said, “Over there is where my friend Allie is buried.”
Ron said, “Do you want to stop there?”
Celeste inclined her head and felt her teeth on her lower lip. “No.”
Celeste and Ron travelled to Rhodes. Ron’s half- sister, his only sister, had sent him their father’s ashes, housed in a plastic bag and housed in a shoebox. Ron was looking for an urn and rethinking his beliefs about cremation. Many cultures believed that burning a corpse sent one’s elements back to the universe in a more admirable way.
In Rhodes there is an old walled city which has become a places of stores. Later, Ron would see a connection between it and Jerusalem. They walked from store to store looking at pottery. When Celeste tired of the search she began looking at rugs. So, Ron was searching alone when the store’s potter came over to him.
“I am Darius,” he said. “These are things that I have made.” His English was perfect and there was a pride in his voice.
Almost automatically, Ron said, “They’re very good.”
Darius thanked him and asked, “Are you looking for something special?”
“Very special. I am looking for a place to keep my father’s ashes.”
Darius led Ron over to the side where there were two chairs. “Sit. Tell me about your father. Would you like something to drink?”
They each had a glass of wine and Ron told Darius about Harry. “He was a good man and a good dad to me, but he never had family of his own and he really didn’t know how it should be done and so he let his instincts guide him.” Ron could tell that Darius was listening closely. Every once in a while he would lean back and rub his jaw. He was a diminutive man with whitish grey hair and muscled arms. Ron thought that his hands must be very strong, but they looked gnarled like the roots of a tree.
They talked about his father’s profession. “He was a mechanic and he was good at his work but he didn’t wish for me to follow along in the same profession and so he refused to teach me anything about what he did. I just held the flashlight.”
“What profession did you follow?”
“I became a teacher.”
“And are you happy being a teacher?”
“I love my work.”
“Then,” said Darius, “I guess that your father knew what he was talking about.”
“He usually did,” said Ron. “He just has his own way of going about things.”
“I think that I know what would be appropriate,” said Darius. He led Ron back to the shelves and walked straight to a squat, cylindrical piece that stood that stood on a round base. It had a mat finish and depicted the exploits of Odysseus. Ron knew instantly that he had wandered into the right place and this was what he had been searching for. It was hardly the most expensive piece but it was the correct one.
Marjorie should have known that she needed to pick out a gravesite and a tombstone, but she could not bear to think about it. Her death came suddenly. One morning she was very sick, but she had been sick like this before. What was strange was how the people with whom she lived looked at her. They were frightened. She sensed the fear and asked them to call Ron.
It took nine days but she wasn’t conscious. She floated in a place beyond comprehension and then the light went out. Ron watched but he knew that the light had left. He and Celeste sat over her. She was being kept technically alive by artificial means. The light was gone and the tug on her spirit was feint and then nonexistent.
George stopped coming. He said that he couldn’t watch anymore. Ron and Celeste stayed. Ron called George and implored, begged, him to come back to see his wife pass from this world. George stayed at home with his family and ate and said that he could not.
Ron and Celeste had both experienced many more deaths than they could be expected to endure without consequences. They waited with a desperate patience.
Her last breaths were relatively gentle compared to the forced expansion and contraction of her lungs that the machine produced. It was quiet when she took her last breaths.
Celeste watched Ron with a worried look. He seemed to not be in this world and not want to be in this world.
After she died they went back to her home where people were cooking and eating food. George reminded Ron that he’d not eaten in a long time. He and Celeste sat silently and ate something. Celeste was quiet. She had loved Marjorie and was searching for some sign that Marjorie had loved her. She couldn’t find it. There was nothing. Then her eyes fell on Ron and she heard Marjorie’s voice clear as a bell. “Here is my gift.”
It rained the day that she was interred. Ron hated the grave. It was in a crowded spot by the road. He heard her voice saying, “You will never come to visit my grave.” In that instant he knew that it was true. He would never go there unless he absolutely had to go.
Ron did go, two weeks after. Marjorie’s gravestone made him recoil. It was adorned with a Catholic rosary. His mother was profoundly not Catholic. She was a Protestant girl who dreamed of being a missionary. Mina had raised her and Mina was the daughter of a minister. They made sure that Ron learned his bible. A rosary on her gravestone felt like an abomination. Ron felt sick and defeated again by lack of concern. He knew that it was there because George had gotten a deal from someone that he knew.
Ron created a little space off his side porch. He cultivated the soil. He planted lavender. He and Celeste planted tulip bulbs. He added mulch. There was this small wax plaque with her name and dates. It was a memorial.
Several times a year, it is tended and fenced, so that no harm comes to it. Secret ashes have been scattered into it. It is a place of rest and peace. Ron looks at it several times a day, but he never visits the rosary gravestone.
One day he said to Celeste, “We really need to think about funeral arrangements. I think that I want my body cremated.