Cemeteries have never freaked me out. As a kid I used to ride my bike to the cemetery near the neighborhood grade school (yeah, weird place to build a school, but whatever). I’d stroll around, reading the grave markers, wondering about the past lives that were summed up often so briefly with just a name and two dates with a dash between them that it would make me sad. I would feel this desire to stop and reflect on each name and think “I bet you made a difference in between those dates!” Everyone does of course. Make a difference. But sometimes their story is only known by a few. And there is for sure not enough room on tombstones to tell a whole lot, which I think is a bummer, but I guess we’d run out of space pretty quickly. Maybe someday we will be able to go digital on the tombstones, so there is more to read of each person’s difference making.
Last fall I visited Margaret Mitchell’s gravesite at the historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta Georgia. Now Margaret is ‘lucky’ in that although her tombstone only says her name and the dates of her birth and death, most people know that she wrote “Gone with the Wind” which won a Pulitzer Prize and of course was made into an epic movie. So yes, she made a well-known difference. But did you know that she started writing the book to pass the time while she was recovering from a car accident in 1926 and that it took her almost ten years to write it and finally publish in the year 1936?
(I hope I’m not stepping on Margaret’s head here! And really? Should I be smiling so big? And wow, my legs look really short in this picture. I should have worn boots.)
Ironically, another car accident later killed her at the young age of 48 while she was jaywalking (don’t do this people!) on her way to a movie, with her husband John Robert Marsh, who died three years later of causes I have not yet discovered…was it grief? A supposedly drunken, off duty taxi cab driver named Hugh Gravitt, hit her. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months in jail. According to his tombstone, which I found on line, (you can find anything on line now) Hugh didn’t die until 1988. I wonder what else happened between poor old Hugh Gravitt’s birth/death dates besides not on purpose killing Margaret Mitchell? A whole lot I bet. Interestingly enough, his daughter, Gloria Gravitt-Moulder recently wrote a book claiming there was more to what happened on that fated day, that there was a cover up and things were not fully investigated. She says that Hugh was on his way to get a prescription filled for her sick brother, after having ONE beer with his buddies. I hope she wrote more about her dad than just about killing Margaret. I haven’t read her book. I maybe will.
Legendary golfer Bobby Jones (and his wife) were also buried in the same cemetery as Margaret Mitchell. Which in and of itself wasn’t all that interesting to me, except that 1) part of the group I was with that day was golfing (instead of having a bunch of fun touring a cemetery) at a historical, upper class, club, where BOBBY JONES PLAYED GOLF and 2) the historic Grant Mansion we visited later was where Bobbie Jones was BORN AND was the very mansion that Margaret Mitchell was trying to preserve! So there was a super interesting symmetry to the day, and to the dead people I visited, which I love (the symmetry, not that the people were dead, jeez). I also love that later we all had beers at a restaurant called “Six Feet Under” which was right across from the Oakland Cemetery. AND! Several crew members from the T.V. series “Walking Dead” were having beers at the table behind us. Seriously! You can’t make this shit up. Well maybe you could, but I haven’t in this case. I promise.
But I digress a bit. I do that sometimes. I should probably get back to my original thought in starting this blog post, which is that I think cemeteries are important for dead people to say “hey” to living people and make them remember, or wonder about (and maybe research) the dash between the dates.
Honestly, do you think I would KNOW about Bobbie Jones, or Hugh Gravitt, or that his daughter wrote a book about that dreadful day, or that Margaret Mitchell’s DRESS caught on fire when she was three, causing her mother, out of fear, to dress her in boy pants for YEARS thereby causing her brother to call her Jimmy, if I hadn’t visited Margaret Mitchell’s grave? See? Ha!
My mother wanted to be cremated and have her ashes spread across Diamond Lake, which I have been told is actually illegal though I haven’t researched it much yet. But seriously? There have been a lot worse things than ashes put in that lake. Trust me. Plus, really who is going to KNOW? And for that matter, who would actually TELL? Maybe assholes would tell. But THEN what?
Anyhow, mom didn’t want to be put in a casket, or have a funeral or have a memorial spot of any kind and I have MOSTLY followed her wishes. Or I will eventually. Right now most of her is still sitting on our shelf at home, along with the ashes of her dog Hooch. It’s my intention, as soon as I make up with my sister, to take her (and Hooch) to the lake, though I wonder if Hooch would have wanted this.
My mom’s ‘funeral’ people (who were very nice, but couldn’t do much for us on account of her wishes) suggested we buy a “little urn” with just a bit of her in it, which seemed like a good idea. (As some peeps know, I keep ‘little urn mom’ in my purse. The big one takes up too much space.) Of course I didn’t know at the time that ‘big urn mom’ would still be on my shelf five years later. But, as I write this, I can’t help but wonder if the reason I have not made up with my sister is bigger than me just being pissed off at her (though she has been kind of MIA for the last five years, so in my defense there hasn’t been much opportunity for me to say I am sorry). Because the idea of spreading mom across the lake gives me this awful panicky feeling that makes me want to risk her haunting me and keep her on the shelf and in my purse, where I can keep track of her.
Stick with me here
What brought all these thoughts to the surface is this: yesterday, exactly six weeks after one of my besties died, I finally got my sorry self to her grave. Several of our friends had sent me pictures of her spot and a few of them over the last weeks asked me to go visit her with them.
But I wasn’t ready until yesterday. (Sometimes I take a while to deal with shit.)
The day previous, after a really rough couple of days, my touch stone friend said to me “I think you just need to sit for a minute, and breathe. Maybe get yourself a coffee and a scone, and just get yourself centered. You sound frantic.” I took her advice and did what she suggested. Except I got an iced green tea and a tomato mozzarella panini and I sat on the floor, ‘criss-cross applesauce’ in my skirt, right in the middle of my really messy downtown office space and just did nothing except sip and chew.
There is something wonderful about simply and mindfully smelling and tasting and feeling the food and drink in your mouth.
How often do we do this my good people? You should try it!
So during my mindful sipping and chewing I decided that part of my franticness was due to the fact that I hadn’t gone to my friend’s grave to say “hey” yet.
So the next day, after getting some directions to her spot, I threw a river rock, a Coors Light summer edition lemon flavored beer and a beach towel in my big purse and drove to the cemetery. (Little urn mom came too.) It was a beautiful blue sky day and I probably should have strolled the long walk, but instead I marched with purpose, not looking at any of the other graves (which is weird for me) until I saw the top of the unique tree she was buried under.
I recognized it from the pictures. Libby had showed me a picture of it too, about a month before she died, but the idea made me kind of mad-sad then, so I mostly ignored it. But seeing the top of the tree live for the first time caused a burst of thankful tears and I had to hold myself back from running to her spot. It seemed in bad taste to run in a graveyard.
Though I did later notice a couple of runners jog through the cemetery, so maybe there aren’t any cemetery rules save for obvious ones like no vandalism or driving your car across the graves…stuff like that. I do try hard not to step on ‘the bodies’ if I can help it. But sometimes the spots are really close together so it’s hard not to. Step on the bodies. Though they probably don’t care.
I hope I get a bunch of space where I am buried. And if some of my family is buried in the same area, I hope there is at least a four foot space between us. Especially if it’s Grant, I mean what if I was mad at him when I died and then someone buries him all CLOSE to me and then we have to just lay there all close, when I am still mad? And what if the person visiting ME doesn’t want to TALK to or be near Grant? And what if Grant gets re-married after I am dead? Would she be buried on the other side of him? I mean THAT’s kind of weird and all the more cause for the four foot rule. It brings a whole new meaning to the sister wives deal. Besides, I feel crowded enough in life. I’d like some space when I am dead.
I should probably work this out before I die. I kind of understand my mom’s wishes a bit now that I think on it more. Graveyards are a little more complicated than I realized.
ANYWAY, despite the fact that I have been visiting cemeteries my whole life, I have never actually gone to the grave site of someone I love. My grandma has a pretty little memorial spot for her urn in Yakima. But I haven’t been there yet. (Sorry grandma. I don’t really have any excuse.) I have lost a few people in my life to the other side. I can’t explain why I haven’t searched out their memorial spots, except that my mom always made it out to be this morbid, yucky idea, being buried in the ground, or just being dead in general. I’ve never felt this way. Maybe I will search these people’s spots out, now that I have brought the thought forward. I can search on line.
But back to my visit with Lib: she doesn’t yet have a grave marker but I knew it was her space from the tree and the metal vase that was described to me, which contained orange and yellow flowers that were starting to look a little wilty. I didn’t bring flowers and felt a little bad for that but I did lay the river rock from the St Joe River next to the vase. I stretched out on the towel next to her, putting my head where I figured her head was, but it could have been her feet, which made me think about her funny looking, big toes that were actually quite little and both bent inward toward her other toes, which then made me wish that I had rubbed her feet once or twice during those last few months. It’s nice having your feet rubbed when you don’t feel good.
I laid there and chatted with her for a while. It seemed like the thing to do. I told her a couple of recent, gossipy things that I thought she might want to know and JUST as I asked her “what do you think about THAT?” the sprinkler from her next door neighbor, quite a ways away, splashed me once, right in the face and then never did it again. I think that was her telling me “Hey, stop talking so much. Why don’t you just rest here with me a bit and shut the hell up?” So I did. I popped open the beer and sipped it while I looked up into her beautiful tree and thought “I’m so glad you arranged for this perfect spot for all of us to come sit, and think, and be as close physically to you as we are able to in this place and time.”
And I think maybe that’s why I feel panicky about the idea of spreading my mom’s ashes in the lake. And probably why I haven’t tried to find my sister and say I am sorry. And it’s why I keep part of mom in my purse where she is contained and mostly present, going on adventures with me, or just to the grocery store or to the cemetery. And why I am willing to risk a haunting for not fulfilling her wishes all the way yet. Because if she’s spread out in the lake, well that just feels so out of control…a lot like SHE was sometimes…and then, well, there is no place for me to physically go, to be near her and reflect, and remember and (depending on the day) lament or chat or maybe just be quiet and relish in the stuff that happened between the dates.
Like sipping and chewing…only different.
But I guess I could buy a canoe.