New Sketch from “The House of Tomorrow”

October 28, 2017

With all the Friday traffic, we didn’t arrive at the cemetery offices until five minutes till four when the office closed. I told the mortuary representative who greeted me that I was looking for my parents’ graves. It had been eight years since I’d been here, and I couldn’t remember exactly where the plot was located. The representative was a well-dressed woman in a gray business suit, pleasant but reserved and somewhat guarded. She may have been put out by my end-of-business request—the business of the dead. She stepped into another room to find the location of the family plot and print out a map. The office was about to close . . .  I waited . . . I read something hanging on the wall: a long paragraph about a man who’d lived centuries ago in the middle east, and was a carpenter, and hadn’t done much with his life until his death at the age of 33. I was so weary from driving all afternoon that it took maybe 15 seconds before I realized the Catholic homily was talking about Jesus, the message being how much God as the Son, the man who hadn’t done very much on the surface, had ultimately changed everything. The woman from the mortuary returned with the map, and drew a circle for me around the family plot, and explained how to find it (finding the plot would soon prove to be a great deal more difficult than her tidy explanation). I asked her if I could use a restroom, and she appeared amused by my request, though I found nothing amusing about it, maybe I had a look of desperation—my bladder certainly wasn’t amused! With a complicit smile, the woman directed me to use the one in the conference room.

The sky was dark as lead at 4:00 on an August afternoon; air charged with electricity, thunderstorm just minutes away, and M. and I were wandering among the graves, searching for my parents, to no avail. The problem was that the graves hadn’t been well maintained, the cemetery grounds crew could only do so much, and ongoing maintenance and care was the responsibility of the families and/or loved ones. I was reminded of the scene at the beginning of “Night of the Living Dead” when Barbra and Johnny are at their father’s gravesite and Johnny is trying to spook Barbra by playing a zombie (“They’re coming for you, Barbra.”) until a real zombie approaches from out of nowhere, kills Johnny, and begins eating him. We had the perfect setting for a horror flick, but there was no horror here, only frustration. And we were visiting in the exact same time of year, almost to the day where, a decade earlier, I stood on this hill looking at the grave of my father, and then looked down the hill at my mother leaning against the car, still very much alive but unable to climb the gradual hill because of her polio leg and slippery grass. A year later, again, almost to the day, we buried her in the place where I now stood.

M. finally found them. A miracle! I had thrown out a couple more family names and she had discovered a grave with the name “Edythe Manss” my great aunt Edie and that meant my parents were close by. We tore away the grass that had partially grown over their names. What struck me at the time, after this crazy searching in the cemetery, was the impersonal character of it all. I don’t know, maybe we were in a hurry, and it was extremely hot and humid and on the verge of a massive storm. I looked at the markers, at the names of my mother and father, just names and dates like the rest of the stones and plaques that crowded this earth, though it had been more than that, much more. The  “more” lives on in my memory.

They never visited me in my dreams, never guided me or offered a revelation from the hereafter, or even a simple “hello.” But I do think of them. I keep pictures.

We left the burial grounds and headed to a local Shop-Rite, which had a bathroom for washing the soil and grass stains from our hands, and also a liquor store. Rush hour on a Friday afternoon, oppressively humid August misery, scurrying crowds, growl of thunder. Waiting for M. to come out of the bathroom, I recalled that, on this same street my parents would take me for ice cream custard summer nights at a Dairy Queen type of place, and across the road there was a German-American restaurant where the extended family (three of whom were in that family plot besides my parents) would go for sauerbraten and ox-tail soup on New Year’s Day. On the spot where I now stood there’d once been a chalet with an ice skating pond, and nearly six decades later, I waited for M. with those late 1950s memories and the present moment light years apart.


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