Winner of the Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Essay Award
Spring/Summer 2006, Volume 22.3
By myself, late in the summer, I walk to the cemetery nearest my house, and for a moment, because I've traveled two miles into the country and I approach on foot, I look over my shoulder like an amateur vandal come to spray paint the monuments.
The single-lane cemetery road winds up a small rise toward the beginning of a thick patch of oak and maple. Near the edge of the woods, I choose the grave with the brightest cut flowers, cross ten steps of perfectly-mown grass and pay attention to last week's date below the name of a woman from my street. Her husband came here yesterday or the day before, I decide, and he must have looked at his dates 1925-200_, giving himself five more years to make good the accuracy of pre-need engraving.
I think of my equivalent, a stone that ends with 202_. I think of how I would live with that sense of surety, and then I think of how I have been with my father when he stood, just outside of Pittsburgh, on the grass of the Lakewood Memorial Cemetery and said, "You'll always be able to find me here." He gestured and meant me to think of the nearby plot as mine, but for that morning, at least, I acted as if cemetery space was something middle-aged men like me had no need for.
To discourage him from asking me directly, I kept walking and found whole families, like ours, together for over a hundred years, settled in from Europe and likely never moving again, never thinking of moving, not far, at least. The day before, my sister had announced she was never leaving Pittsburgh, her house five miles from my father's, and asked when I was coming home, just after she said she had purchased space near my father in the Garden of Dreams, which, so far, leaves me out, kicking the earth hundreds of miles away, picking up the one stone I've seen in all of this grass and sailing it into the trees where it rattles and falls into silence.
This afternoon, in March, my father seems to be enjoying the tour I'm taking of Etna, driving to places I want him to identify or elaborate on—his early childhood home, twice-remodeled; a shoe repair shop, long closed; the shell of a failed butcher shop. His old school is on High Street. Unlike the other buildings he's shown me, from the outside it looks exactly the same as it did when I was a preschooler. Inside, I know, it's been converted to senior citizen apartments.
I keep driving up the hill where the street slopes so steeply it makes me uneasy. Without asking a question, I turn into a small cemetery which is in bad repair—tombstones on precarious slants, the driveway cracked so badly we can't miss brushing against large clumps of last year's weeds. At least, at this time of year, the thistle and milkweed and small sumac are pressed down from months of snow, and I can have access to whatever tombstones I choose to approach and read.
"I'm not getting out of the car," my father says, reminding me of his knees, the irregular, side-of-the-hill pitch of the land here.
"You can see everything from here all the way to Pittsburgh. It's a good place for a cemetery, but they let it go to pot."
I open the door and hesitate. All along, I'd been waiting for him to automatically give me directions, and now, with my hand propping open the door against the pull of gravity, he lapses into a silence that makes me swing my legs out and walk away uninformed, set on locating my grandfather's grave without asking for my father's help.
The first thing I find in the high, matted grass is a small plaque that has lifted far enough from the ground to snatch my foot. I barely catch myself, cursing, and I suddenly feel as if I will surely trip and tumble, unable to stop myself from rolling down this hill. I force myself not to look around to assess my father's watchful stare from the car.
Minutes later I see that one grave, incredibly, is new. It reads January, just two months ago. The plot beside it has a tombstone dated in the 1980s, and though I've examined less than half of the grave sites, I'm sure it's the second newest in the cemetery. These headstones remember the Horning sisters, Maude and Anna, the names of old women who attended, I recall, my father's church. Maude, the older one, is in the new grave; by two months, she made it to 100 years old.
When I push on, there's no sign of my grandfather, dead in 1972, but the cemetery has the look of a place where people would be buried without markers or something so impermanent it would deteriorate and disappear, leaving the site unmarked. My grandfather, resident of a charity home when he died, could be anywhere.
Back at the car, I slide in but prop the door open with one foot to let my father know I'm not finished yet.
"What are we doing here?" he says. "What's to look at but a mess?"
"I wanted to see my grandfather's grave."
My father stares through the windshield as if a cortege were approaching. "It's miles away," he says. "Why did you think he was up here?"
I let the door swing shut and look at him. "I don't know. I just thought because it's so close to the old house, or you said he was here once, or something."
"You don't remember right."
"What cemetery is he in?"
Oh, I don't know the name. Over across the river. He had people out that way."
With nothing to add, I mention Maude Horning, how her name sounds familiar, and he tells me she owned the only unused plot in the cemetery, that nobody kept track for years and they had to scrape off snow to search for the marker with her sister's name on it. "It was some weather that day," he says. "The hearse got stuck, and they had to take her out and put her in the back of a pick-up truck."
I imagine the hearse skidding up the steep slope. I imagine it slipping sideways and spinning its wheels, but I can't conjure a pickup truck in the funeral party. It strikes me that Maude Horning was so old and the weather so bad that the line of cars behind that hearse would have been short and without trucks. The funeral director would have had to flag down a passing driver.
Every year, in mid-December, the news carries a host of Jesus sightings. In the wood grain of doors; in the bark of trees; in the odd swirl of glass turned to mask by light and shadow. In the cemetery in a neighboring town, a display of Christmas lights has gone up, and cars pay a toll to see Santas and elves, snowmen, angels, cartoon figures unfocused by the fog from a winter warmth as irrational as the priest in South Africa who, I read this morning, is suing his surgeon for erasing his soul during three hours of heart surgery.
Belief, he said in the article, is like an ancient cave drawing that disappears when exposed to light, making as much sense as Disney among the headstones, until my friend, listening to me repeat the priest's analogy, tells me that priest must be referring to Abbe Henri Breuil, who, for sixty years, copied cave drawings and studied them, predicting the growth of art would be chronological, from the simple and crude to the complex, how man progresses, he assumed, toward God.
And what work it was, my friend says. Although some of those drawings could be traced on paper laid over them on cave walls, he found pigments so miraculously moist they came off on contact, forcing him to lie on his back, under the caves' ceilings, where he sketched those fragile renderings because photography wouldn't work in the weak light he could carry.
Soon after dusk, the cars will nose forward from the gate where they pay ten dollars, but now, at noon, I drive through for free. Who spent November draping these frames with colored lights? Maude Martz, whose headstone says she died last week, did she dream herself rising to take the tour, beginning with the six steps from her grave to the snowman couple?
I think of my father hobbling across Lakewood Memorial to lay his annual Christmas wreath on my mother's grave in a cemetery where he believes Christ is present. I imagine him trusting his soul to the light. What assurances do we need from the afterlife? My friend, riding with me through this cartoon cemetery, says his years-dead wife, buried here, explains to him how loneliness will rub off as easily as cave art. And then he says that science has dated those drawings differently than the Abbe declared, the oldest most sophisticated, as if we required less from art after we built the miracle of faith.
My father, each time we visit the cemetery where my mother is buried, hits golf balls over her grave.
A dozen of them. The marred and the cut. The discolored. The ones fished from water hazards. He has a private set of range balls that he stores in a burlap sack he keeps in the trunk of his car, more than a hundred of them shifting with the motion of driving. I've seen him toss them into that sack the way I throw pennies in a jar, promising myself some day I'll arrange them into rolls of fifty.
He uses a pitching wedge, arranging those balls along the soft shoulder of the narrow cemetery road. He carries broken tees with him to minimize divots. He presses a dozen into the earth and picks up each one when he's finished. And though his knees are painful enough that he uses a cane when he leaves the house, he has enough of a swing left to manage the fifty yards it takes to have those balls land in the woods that begin twenty steps from her grave site, those balls at their peak or just beginning to descend when they arc over her headstone.
He says nothing while he swings, and I imagine him finding, though my mother never played even one hole of golf, some sort of comfort in the heights of those parabolas. She never, as far as I know, even accompanied him to one of the courses he played on, but every time I visited and played a round with my father, she would ask, when we got back, "How did it go?"
My answer was always a short "good" or "not so good," but my father, ordinarily so reticent, would launch into an extended narrative that covered every sequence of solid shots either he or I had managed. When he finished, she would take the scorecard from him and file it with all of his others, in chronological order. And though I've expected it, no one has ever approached us at the cemetery when I've been with him.
And when, on occasion, he fails to loft one of those balls into the woods, he hobbles to wherever it lies and underhands that ball into the trees. He never strikes a ball twice, not even if he chunks one less than half way to the grave. And we never move to the grave site until every ball is cleared.
After that, I hand him the flowers we've brought and watch as he replaces the wilted ones from an earlier visit. He makes his own arrangements from the flowers in season in his yard. In December he weaves pine boughs into a wreath that lasts until March, when daffodils renew the cycle.
On average, I'm with him three times a year; he visits alone or with my sister another twenty times. He's told me he hits with my sister watching. That's nearly 300 golf balls a year.
My mother has been dead fifteen years, but he didn't begin this ritual until three years ago, so he's hit or thrown nearly 1000 golf balls into those woods, driving home to silence.
So I know, without asking, there are people who must have given him ruined golf balls, that it's almost a certainty that the course he plays as regularly as his knees will allow has donated the worst of its range balls.
Or else he spent those first twelve years, when his knees still worked, stalking the edges of golf courses until he'd accumulated more than a thousand balls, enough, he probably thought, to last him, because he was more than 80 years-old when he began to loft those wedges.
So many fewer balls in that bag when I accompanied him this year, I think of how many are left now, whether or not he's bothering to gather replacements. If he visits even fifteen times next year, he'll run out before winter.
What I can't bring myself to do, then, still remains:
Criticize him for the disrespect those lofted balls might signify to others.
Help him track down the balls he increasingly leaves short.
Ask him if he'll gather a new supply before next March. Whether the dwindling number of balls in that sack are a kind of calendar. Whether each shot is an X crossed over a day.