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J U L Y 1 9 9 7
by Gerald Dumas
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.
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"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,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.
But my favorite cemetery in the world is the one in Conestogo, Ontario, where my mother's parents lived, my Opa and Oma. Saint Matthew's Church is on a high point in the middle of the village, and the cemetery spreads out right alongside. Summer after summer we would come for a few weeks, and I, weird kid that I was turning out to be, tended to hang out with the oldest men I could find. They all seemed to have been around forever, and I wanted to study their faces and listen to their strange and wonderful voices and find out what they knew. Old Marty and Charlie Schweitzer would let me play in their ancient, aromatic barn and hold the reins of their huge horses, Mike and Prince, from high atop the haywagon, and would stuff me with raspberries and molasses cookies and give me baskets filled with turnips and beets to take home to Oma.
Then came a summer when Marty was dead, and another summer when Charlie was dead. I would run to the cemetery, run wildly between the gravestones, and stop at the foot of Marty's and Charlie's graves to tell them that I missed them and to wonder what they looked like now. Then I would sit on their stones and swing my bare legs and chew Doublemint gum and wait for the bells in the steeple to ring, which is what Marty and Charlie and I used to do when we worked in the fields together, down by the river.
SINCE then I have been in cemeteries everywhere -- Boston and London, the great cemeteries of Paris. We have some very fine graveyards here in my Connecticut town, filled with good old names like Josiah Finch, Abigail Goodtree, and Hezekial Mead. The former pastor of the little white Congregational church a stone's throw from our house was named Nathan Adams, and a tall, gaunt, sweet man he was. He died not long ago, and I saw him in his coffin, at the front of the church, just beneath the pulpit. He was widely loved: the next day the small church could not begin to hold everybody, and I was out on the lawn with many others. They took him off to be buried, and I went to find my wife, who was working, to see if she could come to the cemetery. She could not join me; it may be that she's had enough of all this. So I sped off to catch the last of the burial.
I was too late. Most people were just leaving. I parked and went over to the grave site and started talking to a man in a blue serge suit. We looked down at the green fake-grass fabric that covered the grave. Others drifted over to listen to us. We spoke about what a good, kind person he was, and how he would be missed.
Finally I said, "What's that bulge there under the covering?"
My companion said, "Why, that's the urn with the ashes."
I said, "I just saw Nate Adams yesterday. He wasn't cremated."
The blue serge suit said, "Nate who? This is Bill Gilman, from Westport."
I got in my car and drove away. They all watched me go.
That keeps happening, but it's all right. Someday it'll stop.
Illustration by Blair Drawson
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1997; Visitations; Volume 280, No. 1; pages 30 - 32.