The Cemetery of Life
My cellular telephone was playing “Brown Eyed Girl” so I knew it was my daughter. “Hi Dad. Can we have a serious talk?”
No way to begin a conversation, but the only answer is “Of course, Dear. What’s on your mind?”
Emma is one of her daughters. This alarms me. “She’s not sick or anything?”
“No. But you may have ruined her for life, if you don’t care about that!”
Emma and I just spent a lovely grandpa and granddaughter day together in the small town where I grew up. The weather was perfect. We walked everywhere, talked about everything a six year old child likes to talk about, ate lunch at her favorite little café and went shopping. A memorable day without mishaps or drama. So, I could only answer “What are you talking about?”
“You aren’t old enough yet to hide behind your memory loss, which you’ve had since you were twenty-five anyway,” she said. “Did you take Emma to the cemetery?”
There is no reason why I should wish to deny that. It’s a nice walk into the country from our house toward a wooded river valley. The cemetery is well groomed and old enough to have actual headstones with inscriptions under the names and dates. If anything, it’s a history lesson. But she had a reason for asking, so I ran a half dozen scenarios through my head before answering, casually, “Yes. It’s a nice walk.”
“I bet,” she said. “And did you tell Emma that the cemetery is full of dead people?”
“Well,” I said stalling. “She asked.”
“And you didn’t think of lying?”
“No,” I said. “What could I say? Cemeteries are filled with dead people. I suppose I could’ve said burial ground or graveyard.”
“You could’ve said it was a park.”
“She’s been to parks. They aren’t filled with grave stones with dates listing birth and death years.”
“She can’t read that well.”
“Well,” I said, sticking up for Emma, “she’s smart enough to know they were under the ground.”
There was a pause. I listened carefully, hoping she’d hung up. No dice.
“So,” she growled. “You told my innocent six-year-old daughter that there were hundreds of corpses lying, rotting under her feet.”
“Not exactly. She asked if they were standing up, sitting down, or lying down. I just said lying down.”
“Did you think that was very smart?”
“Truth isn’t dumb or smart,” I explained. “Truth is just the truth. If it offends you, tough.”
“Did you also tell her they were boxed up in coffins?”
“Most of them are.”
“I don’t believe it!” she scolded.
And then I remembered Emma’s comment when I’d told her that. She said, “So, Grandpa. What you’re saying is that this whole place is filled up with dead people lying under the grass in boxes?”
Even at the time I wondered how I’d gotten myself into this. “Yes,” I had told her, keeping with my policy of honest answers.
“That’s creepy,” Emma told me.
“Well, not really. We all have to go somewhere after we die.”
“Heaven,” she said.
“Well, I mean your body.”
“So,” she continued, squinting at me. (Honesty has its disadvantages.) “Now you’re telling me we leave our bodies?”
“Then what are we in?”
“Emma, can we talk about something else?”
“We just become spirits.”
“Grandpa, are you sure you know all this stuff? You’re old, but you’re still alive so how do you know?”
“I just know.”
“You better not be making it up. My mommy and daddy never told me any of this.”
“And I hope you won’t ask them about it.”
“They’re too young. I haven’t told them yet.”
“Well, they should know about it. They’re almost as old as you. All of you will be dead soon.”
I glanced Heavenward and mumbled, “How about now?”
Naturally, I shared none of this conversation with my daughter. She’s always been sort of reactionary and it makes her face red.
I was hoping that she might hang up now since she’d had her chance to scold me. When your children age that’s what happens. They begin to lecture you, advise you, pity you, and boss you. For some reason they have transferred their dependence to dominance. Every small thing that throughout life went unnoticed is now a symptom of old age, decay, and intellectual drainage. If you walk into a room and wonder why you are there, shut up about it. Make up something, but keep it simple, like “Just checking.” Nobody can make anything of that. And if they ask “What are you checking?” the answer is simple, “The house has been settling and the plumber told us to keep an eye on things. All those sewer pipes in the walls and ceilings. We don’t want any leakage. Looks okay though.”
Some of your male children may question this, but female children just stare at you. Smiling at them helps.
Months rolled by and I had all but forgotten the “cemetery incident” as I’d come to call it. My daughter went to Guatemala to boss them around and Emma came to stay with me again. We spent two weeks together and things went surprisingly well. She didn’t cry very much and ate what I cooked.
It was early autumn now and the corn had ripened on both sides of the cemetery road. Emma lived in a city and had never been in a cornfield. So we picked an ear and she held it so I could take her picture. But when we strolled through the large wrought iron gate and into the cemetery she was not surprised or alarmed. She was just learning to read and took an interest in the names and dates on the stones. Some had inscriptions in Swedish or Norwegian. One we thought was German.
An hour later she had wandered away from me and I found her sitting on her knees before an old and faded stone. I stood beside her and asked, “What are you doing?”
She reached out and traced her finger along the image of a baby. “A baby,” she said.
“Yes,” I answered. “Many years ago.”
“I don’t like it,” she stared at the stone.
“That babies can die. Do you think she was hurt?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why does it happen?”
I knew that was coming. “Wish I understood it,” I said.
We were quiet awhile, and finally she said, “I’m glad we came here. When kids talk about cemeteries they always talk about ghosts or scary stuff, but it’s not like that. Babies aren’t scary. Sometimes I help feed my baby sister.”
I didn’t know what to say. Finally I said, “I’m glad you’re not scared.”
“Can we come here again some day?”
“I’m going to find all the babies that are here and see if they had names.”
“Some do, most don’t,” I said.
“I don’t want them to be forgotten.”
We started back. She took my hand and awhile later said, “I love you Grandpa.”