Ring the bell in the middle of the cemetery

On Friday afternoon, I got an urgent phone call from my grandmother. I could tell she meant business because she called me and said she couldn’t talk long.

“When you were at the cemetery, did you notice white stones on your mother’s grave?” she asked.

I laughed, already sure I knew where this was going. “Audrey put those there,” I told her.

“Oh, Audrey did it!” she said, relief in her voice. She had spent the last three days calling everyone she could think of but me trying to figure out how those stones got on my mother’s grave plus the graves of five other family members.

Audrey is my youngest daughter. She fell asleep in the back seat of the short car ride from my grandmother’s house to the cemetery. Just before we left for our long drive home, my grandmother handed me a plastic flower and one of those junk mail newspapers that usually go directly from the driveway to the recycling bin. She didn’t ask but told me to stop at my mother’s grave and put the flower in the cast iron vase. She said she was too weak to do it herself. She did this the last time we visited too. Say what you want about ninety-year olds, but they can be very clever.

For years, I never visited my mother’s grave. I thought about her often…at least once a day, I guess? She died when I was still a baby so any connection I feel is in my blood or from stories my grandmother told me. I have no physical memories of her so never saw the point to kneel down in grass beside a stone marker to feel closer. I carry her in my head and heart. Besides, I’d already spent plenty of time tromping around this cemetery.

My grandmother used to take my brother and I there every Sunday when we stayed the weekend. Friday nights were all about going to Cook’s for some cheap toy we didn’t need and putting a glass of Coke in the freezer, something our parents never allowed us to do at home (did we ever ask though?). Saturdays were all about running errands, like to the grocery store for junk food my parents never bought or to the dusty butcher shop where I passed on my first and last offer to try hog’s head cheese. Saturdays were also about trying to eat those frozen Coke pops we’d started on Friday.

Sundays were all about church, the cemetery and going home. I can reminisce sweetly now about the earthy incense and garishly frightening statues at St. Alfonsus Church, but at the time it was a boring hour better spent with coke slushies or feeding her neighbor’s malnourished dog rolled up pieces of salami and carrots through chainlink fence. I did not want to be at church, though the cemetery was at least outside. It was also the next to last stop before home. I never wanted to go home on Sundays. I didn’t want to go back to school the next day and, more importantly, I wanted to be spoiled by my grandmother forevermore.

Our stop at the cemetery felt like it took hours, though maybe it was only a half hour. My grandmother didn’t do fake flowers then and, depending on the time of year, she often brought pansies or mums to plant. She’d park the car and walk the equivalent of two big-city blocks to the water station to fill a jug of water. She’d walk back to the grave and prune the boxwood planted next to the headstone bearing my family name, and then she would pull and weed and dig and plant and walk all the way back to the water station to rinse off her tools. Maybe this did take hours.

My brother and I were not much help. We flitted between headstones, playing with our Friday night junk toys and inventing new ways to torture each other. As the younger sister, my ways were more innocent and generally involved not giving my brother enough space. His ways were less innocent and more geared towards reclaiming that space. This is when he told me the story about the haunted mausoleum.

This particular mausoleum is a small, one-family structure a little more than a stone’s throw away from my mother’s grave. It looked like a cute little stone house or shed from one side, but if we walked to the other side, we could peek through the locked steel gate and see inside. This is where my brother told me there were dead people living inside. He said they might escape and I should watch to make sure they didn’t. Then he flitted off.

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This is the same brother who told me dead people lived inside a wooden storage bin underneath someone’s beach house. Maybe he told me both things within the same year. Maybe he was on a dead-people-live-inside-boxes-but-want-out kick and I, unfortunately, happened to be his sounding board. I remember being terrified by both dead-people-live-inside-boxes-but-want-out stories, though why I stood guard by the gate of the mausoleum and never thought to run back to my grandmother stumps me now.

I got in trouble that day. My grandmother couldn’t see me from where she was weeding and planting. She thought I’d been kidnapped. You might wonder what kind of kidnappers hang out in cemeteries, but once she told me a car slowed down and stared the three of us down and she threatened the driver with her trowel. He swore to her that he was just looking for his brother’s grave but maybe he wasn’t and surely he could tell by the look in her eye that she would wield that trowel swiftly and ferociously to defend her family. Wisely, he moved along.

Understandably, I feel a little skittish in cemeteries, but this last visit not so much. Audrey was fast asleep in the backseat and would not wake, so my oldest daughter, Vanessa, and I put the fake flower in its vase, carefully anchoring it in with junk news. I took some pictures of her by the grave, as one does in my family. She’s pretty used to it. We took a little walk so I could show her the mausoleum and pass along terrifying family folklore.

When we got back from our walk, Audrey was sitting up in the backseat and not at all happy. I had visions of my grandmother with her trowel. We consoled her with apologies and a promise that we would take another walk, this one much longer. It was a beautiful, spring-like day for February. We walked over to a much larger mausoleum, this one holding easily hundreds of deceased stacked in tidy grids. We passed some ground markers along the way and noticed some had stones on top. Audrey got excited about the idea of leaving mementos and gathered a handful of stones from the walking path to take back to our own family. We rang a bell on our way back, something you don’t get to do very often, much less in the middle of a cemetery.

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Audrey carefully distributed her stones equally between six family members. If anyone got an extra stone, I hope it was my poor grandfather buried in a lonely plot across the lane marked only by the spot where his inverted (empty) flower vase sits not quite flush with the ground. He wasn’t much for flowers and would have preferred a hog’s head cheese sandwich, but we only brought stones. Audrey left some and then the three of us got in the car and drove home.

Now, why my grandmother drove to the cemetery herself a couple days later and why it never occurred to her that we left the stones are great mysteries. When she saw Audrey’s stones, it spooked her. First she went to the cemetery office and grilled them. They said they did not leave the stones but told her it’s a Jewish tradition to leave stones as remembrance on a loved one’s grave. We are not Jewish, so this spooked my grandmother further. Over the next few days she called friends, neighbors, and her niece’s son to ask if they had any ideas. One of the neighbors suggested maybe someone in our family left the stones but, no, my grandmother didn’t think so. Where would we get stones? She underestimates our resourcefulness and tendency to wander in cemeteries on really nice days.

Once we solved the mystery of the cemetery stones, my grandmother said she would leave them there, even though we are not Jewish. She said my girls will always remember going to visit family in the cemetery and the way she said it made me know it pleased her very much, and it pleased me too.

 

 

 

 

where we’re going we don’t need maps

I used to pour over map books the way one might over a really good book. I loved using the key and then snaking two fingers along the page until they met at the exactly right part of the grid.

Knowing how to get places was a matter of necessity in my line of work as a volunteer coordinator for a hospice in metropolitan DC. Sometimes hospice is an actual building where people go to die in peace, smaller and less clinical than a hospital. But usually hospice refers to services provided in a dying person’s home, which can be anywhere. I had to be able to explain to volunteers how to get there and often delivered medical supplies or sat with patients myself. The internet was around then but I didn’t have it. Portable, affordable phones with instant directions in a soothing female voice would have sounded like some serious Jetsons witchcraft. I kept a well worn ADC map book in my work bag and then picked up another for the county where we lived and kept doing this each time we moved until Jetsons witchcraft came true.

I miss those ADC map books. The last one I bought was eleven years ago at a Wawa up the road while we were looking for a place to live. It was kind of pricey but I knew we would use the hell out of it. That very first day I opened to the master map and saw that red star next to the name of one of my favorite breweries. It turned out they had a brewpub down the road from one house my husband I both liked. It wasn’t our dream home or anything. The kitchen had and still has faux butcher block countertops exactly like the ones from my childhood home. The carpet in the living room still smells faintly of cat piss when it rains. The back yard was a blank slate then, no landscaping whatsoever beyond a handful of mature maples scattered around. But the view, oh the view. Beyond the neighbor’s lot, we could see a skyline of trees, layered like a painting with hints of soft color at the spring to come. My husband and I both saw it and said the same thing: we could live here.

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a different, southern view
Before we made an offer, we decided it would be prudent to come back one more time and see the house again with fresh eyes. We lived hours away at the time and planned the trip around a visit to see family. I opened the map book and saw that red star next to the name of my favorite beer and said to my husband let’s check it out afterwards. This passed for high adventure in my mind and his too, I think.

If not for that ADC map book, we may have lived there years before finding that brewpub. It was buried in the middle of an industrial park, housed in an old Pepperidge Farm bakery. By the looks of it, not much had been done before moving in. The walls were bare except for a few beer banners and old black and white photographs of stout women in hair nets from its bakery days. There were long oak tables and farmhouse chairs and the wait staff was casual and friendly. They welcomed us for lunch even though we’d walked into some kind of staff chili cook-off. It felt as much like coming home as any new place can feel.

We made an offer on the house and came back to visit the brewpub many more times. The chili cook-off became an annual tradition, though I stopped going when I quit drinking. And also, I don’t really love chili. I mean, I make it a few times a year, but I never really get excited about eating it. Now, you give me a cupcake cook-off, I don’t think I would have missed a single year. This brewpub isn’t known for desserts but it does make a mean soft pretzel and their home-brewed root beer is also pretty great. But it took a long time sober to fully appreciate these other gifts.

Today I’m headed back for the first time in many years for another chili cook-off. A lot happened in the last eleven years. Although I no longer drink beer, a lot of people still do and business was so good they completely renovated the old bakery to the point where you have to close your eyes to imagine stout ladies in hair nets. They had enough left over to build two brand new brewpubs. The chili cook-off will be at one of those.

It’s not my favorite place to go because it smells like beer. They brew it there and that smell was pretty triggery in my early days of not-drinking. I smelled it and remembered bellying up to the bar by myself a few Friday afternoons to get the growler filled. I remember meeting my husband there a few times without the kids and feeling like we were getting away with something or the time I took my oldest kid on a Saturday afternoon and kept putting quarters in the claw machine until we won a stuffed purple gorilla in a bowler hat. None of these memories are particularly pleasant now and I don’t think they were then, either. I don’t want to discount everything that happened pre-sobriety, lumping it all together like one big mistake, but I was not at my best then. Some days I was a crackly shell of a woman.

I read two things so far this morning about facing triggers in sobriety. (They are not blogs, so I can’t link to them.) A friend wrote about knocking off early on a workday and, instead of heading to the bar, he went home and performed a delicate mechanical task he would have previously saved for Saturday and a delicately hungover state. This would have led to frustration and ultimately failure. The second thing I read was about someone reclaiming camping and late-night porch-sitting in sobriety. Both were examples of sober people going back to things they used to love while drinking but hid from for awhile. They figured they had to bury those old loves like we do when we’re newly sober. Since we’ve never lived a sober life before, we don’t know what it will be like. What we start to be able to imagine after a month or three or nine sober isn’t always great either. We don’t want constant reminders of what we’ve given up so sometimes we hide from things for awhile (and that’s okay).

A great things happens when we stick to the path we were meant for. It levels out and the brush clears and while the climb might still feel steep here and there, the views are spectacular. We find and take new paths and revisit old ones only to discover new joys. Some we put behind us forever. It’s important to listen and know when to do this, but also remember there are so many other paths. I kind of wish I’d kept my old ADC map book to snap a picture of how battered it got, the edges curled and worn from riding side saddle in the car all those years. Each memory is like a page, and I see how little I knew then and still now.

 

 

 

The Doctor’s House

When a good sale came along in November, I remembered how cold it felt during lunch time walks last winter and bought a down parka with fur trimmed hood. I vowed to keep walking at lunch, not every day, but enough that I wouldn’t feel bad about it.

Then I had the parka going on two months and many days were as bitter cold as the parka was cozy warm, but still I hadn’t taken it for a lunch time walk. It wasn’t a conscious decision but more a reluctance to challenge myself because life felt hard enough already. I stand by that break, but maybe I forgot a little how good walking makes me feel. When I was ready, the reminders were there.

First I read a post by Michelle about how changing your scenery changes your perspective. She also mentioned wishing her eyes could take pictures, a thought I’ve had many times. When I go for walks, I often take pictures. The park where I walk is 700 acres with a dozen abandoned structures in varying states of decomposition. A creek cuts through woods and active farmland and there’s even a trout hatchery and bird blind by a secluded pond. It’s hard not to take pictures, and some even turn out.

The other thing that pushed me to get out and finally test the new parka was my husband saying he was planning to walk at lunch on the coldest day of the week like it was no big deal. He made me realize I could do it too.

I am happy to report the parka held up really well. I love any chance to wear the hood because it’s snug and I can slip it on like a wig and pretend to have another hair color for awhile. I like not dyeing my hair anymore and don’t ever want to go back, but sometimes grey feels dreary and pulling a crazy hood on fixes that somehow.

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A big fluffy hood can also be disorienting. It muffles sound and blocks peripheral vision. I like to feel on my toes in a park with miles of winding trail where some days you can walk a half hour without seeing anyone. I took the hood off while stopping to take pictures in front of the Doctor’s House.

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Out of all the abandoned structures that dot the park, The Doctor’s House feels the creepiest. The first time I set out to find it, I had a map and was so excited and walked right up by the bilco doors to get a closeup of the crumbling stucco. I swore I heard tinny music that was probably not my phone playing music from the muffled recess of my pocket, though the thought is comforting now. I got my pictures and got the hell out and didn’t go back for awhile.

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The other day there were lots of walkers out, so I went by again and stopped to take a few pictures, including the one above. Though it was a split second before my mind processed crumbling porch post, I saw her. A girl. I quickly looked back at the house and chuckled to myself and got the hell out of there to visit another creepy, but more lonely, house.

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I wanted to write a story about the Doctor’s House since I saw its name on a wooden sign at a crossroads in the park. It seems like the kind of story that would write itself, but so far my ideas aren’t very good.  I know it has its own story and while I haven’t been able to figure out what that is, that’s what keeps me coming back.

Today I went to a different part of the park and caught a squirrel trying to drag a corn husk up a tree. I tried to take a picture but it didn’t turn out and my attention flustered him so much he dropped the corn. Other squirrels chittered and skittered in nearby trees and I felt bad and moved on.

Now that I’ve seen every landmark on the map of the seven hundred acre wood, I can go back and spend more time in between. The camera will always be in my pocket but I won’t always use it. I still remember perfectly well what that squirrel looked like dragging his bright yellow husk up the tree, which would have been like you or I trying to lug an overstuffed armchair up a flight of stairs.

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taken in spring, see the yellow wildflowers in the background?

Unclench

I made a joke about having to go to see the dentist right after work, like which was a worse fate, but I wasn’t really dreading it. I’ve never had a root canal, crown or even a cavity. Every morning at breakfast, my brother and I dutifully chewed a tiny pastel pill that tasted like cherry or orange or lime. Our teeth later appeared mottled, tiny striations of white so bright they made the rest of our teeth look dingy, but the fluoride had done its job.

I used to see a different hygienist for years and we formed an easy rapport. We talked about our kids and their school, sports and summer camps, though I could tell she was on a different, more vigilant plain of motherhood. I nodded a lot, and not just because her fingers were in my mouth. She had mastered the art of asking questions and making interesting statements when I could respond.

This new hygienist is not like her, though she is also not really new. I saw her once years ago when my regular hygienist was on vacation and she complimented me on my teeth and said some people just have better spit. I had never considered superior spit or that I had it. I secretly wished she could be my regular hygienist and, years later, the heavens conspired to change work schedules and I got my wish.

My second visit to the complimentary hygienist was something of a let down. She did not compliment my spit and asked me at the end if I floss, which is the same as saying please start. The only other thing I remember is she told me her and her college-aged daughter do this record club where they listen to albums during the week and then discuss over coffee. I thought that was really neat. Also, she correctly identified The Eye in the Sky over the office intercom, though I wanted to call it The Eye of the Storm, and the only other time it sounded so sharp and clear was from the velour backseat of the family Datsun in 1982.

I have some secrets to share now regarding teeth. You might not have to floss if you use a sonic toothbrush, though you still probably should, but only once a week or month, maybe less, but you didn’t hear it from me. The dentist will still come in and comment how pink and healthy your gums are and he won’t say keep up the great work with flossing because he probably owns a sonic toothbrush too. You can get a decent rechargeable one on the internet for like $40.

Another thing I learned about teeth is they shift when we get older, but it’s not always permanent. I had finally accepted that I can no longer chew meat on the right side of my jaw because tiny pieces get painfully lodged in the gum, and the second hygienist told me this mysterious condition may reverse itself. She said sometimes our teeth shift because of trauma, and not from brushing too hard, like we used to think.  I imagine her pouring over dental journals at night in front of a fire.

Although I can’t ask what she means because tools and fingers cram my mouth, she tells me teeth grinding is one kind of trauma. We talk about how our natural state in waking is often a clenched jaw, her moving her lips to tell me while I nod from the chair. I remember a period some years back where I routinely clenched so hard I actually took notice. My shoulders and jaw muscles were so tightly coiled, I walked around with a vague but nonetheless real sense of foreboding that I could not place. I used to force myself to periodically relax the muscles in my face and then savored the flood of relief as my jaws floated back to their natural place. I hadn’t thought about that in ages and how I unconsciously wear myself down. Sometimes I need reminding.

 

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