Graveyard Full Of Lively Memories

SUNDAY, MAY 25, 1997

My most beloved uncle, a priest and master storyteller, is buried in the Jesuit cemetery just below Mount St. Michael. It is a beautiful site tucked into a green hilltop. The landscape is wide open. I can sit there for hours just admiring it. The view from a graveyard has never frightened me.

As children, my sister and I spent a lot of time visiting cemeteries. The last offspring of older parents, we made the rounds of graveyards as routinely as others visited the living. We especially liked the trip to Mount St. Michael, in our minds a kind of Catholic theme park with hidden grottos to explore.

While my parents searched for the markers that never seemed to be in the same place twice, my sister and I ran off on some holy adventure. We were the miracle children of Fatima or the beatific Bernadette of Lourdes.

Actually, my older sister was always Bernadette. I played Bernadette’s cousin, the little known Bernice, who had no spiritual calling other than remembering to bring the sandwiches. Life, even then, was all in the details.

For those so accustomed to visiting graves, Memorial Day was a special event. Each of us played a part in the honoring of memory.

My mother went to the garden just after dawn to select the most beautiful offerings. Gladioli, peonies, lilies and roses were cut, then quickly wrapped in damp dish towels to preserve their fragrance.

My father selected his best pruning shears and sturdiest garden gloves. Errant grass that threatened to overtake the cherished names etched in stone was no match for my father’s clippers.

The bouquets sat on the back seat between my sister and me on the drive out to the graves. At each stop we were handed empty Folger’s coffee tins. Our job was to fetch water from the elusive spigots which my father always insisted were just over the next hill of each cemetery on our list.

We didn’t mind the search. Along the way we met a gallery of stone citizens - beautiful angels, stalwart saints and wistful cherubs - that promised to come to life in the corners of our eyes.

When we returned, always with more excuses than water, mom arranged the flowers for the last time. Together we knelt on the grass and offered our individual versions of prayers - 5-year-old wishes and 60-year-old regrets.

Then my father told a story about the person buried below. Sometimes it was a brief anecdote, sometimes a favorite joke, sometimes just a couple of words hurried out before tears.

Along with his flowers, he planted memories. Through his stories my sister and I were given a sense of place, a memory landscape of people and countries we never knew. When my father died, my mother continued the stories, weaving her husband into the fiber of her children’s lives.

Of course, the histories told at gravesides are often revisionist. More wheat, less chaff. The good gets better, the bad can mostly be forgiven. Some might call this denial, others, survival.

Or maybe it is the balm of memory, polishing out the rough patches, burnishing the broken places until they are as smooth as stones. Smooth and silent as the marble in which the names of our ancestors, sometimes even our children, are carved. It is left to the living to tell the lives of the dead. And it is only the living who might learn from such a history.

People tell me that it’s foolish to visit graves, that our loved ones are not there, that cemeteries are a waste of time and land. Maybe, but I go anyway. I know no better place of reckoning.

The grottos of childhood are covered with thick vines. The eyes of stone angels no longer hold a gleam. Yet, if we listen with new ears, we might still hear, even from mute stones, the voices of all the storytellers of our lives. From their songs, however brief or distant, we may hear our own voices singing.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Kathleen Corkery Spencer The Spokesman-Review

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