Visitations

In the graveyard

I am drawn to cemeteries. I've enjoyed them since childhood. I have no wish to be placed in one anytime soon, of course, but I am lured by their green serenity, riveted by all those shimmering echoes. My wife found out about this unconventional streak quite early in our marriage. We did not know each other all that well to begin with; we decided to hook up forever more or less on instinct.

And so thirty-six years ago we got married in Phoenix and set out on our honeymoon driving cross-country to our new home — my old apartment, actually — in Connecticut. We drove north to Oak Creek Canyon and the Grand Canyon, and then, before she knew what hit her, I had her standing beside me looking reverently down at the grave of my boyhood hero, Buffalo Bill, in the foothills outside Denver. We had had only seven or eight dates before our marriage, dates that were spaced well apart but pretty good dates — dinner, wine, movies, walks, all the pleasant and ordinary sorts of behavior. So she had no reason to suspect me of anything unusual until I dragged her a good many miles out of our way to gaze upon the ground beneath which lay the bones of Buffalo Bill. I remember standing there with head bowed, eyes closed, seeing clearly in my mind's eye Joel McCrea in one of his best roles, and looking up finally to find Gail studying me curiously. We made good time going across the country, considering that highways were not what they are today, and less than a week later found us in Elmira, New York, staring reverently down at the grave of Mark Twain. I had gotten Gail to say yes to me during the course of a whirlwind weekend in New York City — the top of the Empire State Building, moonlight carriage ride in Central Park, selecting an engagement ring at Black, Starr & Gorham, on Fifth Avenue. Yet here we were in another cemetery on our honeymoon, and she was beginning to get concerned.


"Look," I said to her, pointing. "Susy Clemens's grave. She was only twenty-four years old." I bent down a little and read aloud the inscription beneath her name:

"Warm summer sun shine kindly here,
Warm Southern wind blow gently here,
Green sod above lie light, lie light —
Good night, dear heart, good night, good night."

Tears came to my eyes; I turned away, so Gail couldn't see, and found myself face-to-face with two elderly women. One of them said to me, with some anxiety, "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," I said. "I'm on my honeymoon."

We left the cemetery fairly quickly then, but just before we got to the gate, I looked back and saw that the women were still looking at us. At me, anyway.

When I was a child, I spent a great deal of time in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Detroit, because that's where all my father's side of the family kept being buried. My father was the second youngest of seventeen children, and by the time he was about forty, his mother and father had been conducted to their graves, and after decent intervals Uncle Ed and Uncle Harold and Aunt Emma and Aunt Philomene and all the others had followed. (Incidentally, old Joe Dumas, the father of the seventeen, for having sired that brood once won a box of Havana cigars in some strange contest involving a local newspaper; his wife, my grandmother Louisa, a hearty Jane Darwell sort, won nothing.)

I looked forward to all those funerals, because I liked the look of the cemetery, with its calm, endless rolling hills, all the gravestones, the weeping willows, and the ponds, so different from the scraggly, screeching, monotonous streets that encircled it. And I liked to listen to and watch all the survivors as they got into and out of cars grimly and ate the ham and drank the beer thoughtfully and quietly, so different from their everyday selves. Normally my aunts and uncles were fairly excitable — some would even say rowdy.

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