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.


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.


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.





25 thoughts on “Ring the bell in the middle of the cemetery

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  1. I worked in a synagogue for five years (I’m a Christian so this was a wonderful educational experience) and had the occasion to visit a Jewish cemetery with a co worker. I saw her place little stones on gravestones. I thought this was cool and still do. Thanks for bringing back a good memory. ❤️ You do such great mommy things.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have childhood memories of visiting relative’s graves in a Jewish cemetery and placing small stones to show we’d been there. I love that your daughter came up with it on her own. I’m glad your grandmother came to see it as a remembrance.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Some of your finest, K. Love the imagery of your grandmother going back and forth with her tools to the water station. Laughed out loud at your ham-sandwich loving grandfather 🙂

    “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.”

    ^^^^ so good.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. That’s a great story, how it meanders in time and space there…held me the whole time, too. I think it’s funny the stones spooked her; I can see why it would. One’s imagination probably goes to dark rituals or rites, but the stone placement is a sweet thing from a child’s perspective, I think. And that stone placement thing likely goes way, way back — for reasons we’ll never really know, but primitive.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was an adult when I visited the cemetery where my grandfather, great-grandpa, my grandma and other relatives were buried.
    This is in Pepin, Wisconsin…a small river town.
    It was so interesting, and some of the gravestones very old, and were intrically carved by my great-grandfather.
    I will have to see if my brother still has those photos!
    Thank you for the memories!


  6. One of the most memorable times of my adult life was having the opportunity to visit the grave sites of several generations of my family on Oahu and Maui. I placed several lei’s at each site, noting that many of the graves were in unmaintained pauper gravesites along the side of the highway. lot’s of crumbling mausoleum’s and headstones, and even more unmarked graves that you could only tell were there by the depressions in the ground.

    It was heartwarming to see that even still some of the graves were maintained (obviously by family members) and clean. Many had trinkets, old dolls, whatever placed, and some had still fresh flowers. Since the first time I visited with my grandfather (who was born and raised on Maui), every time I go back to see family, for weddings, for funerals, I have to visit the paupers graves on Maui along the old road. And I visit the ornate Japanese graves and the temple on Oahu at the valley of the temple.


    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a beautiful post and I mean full of beauty. Thank you.

    P.S. my mother’s name was Audrey – she was a lovely considerate kind individual who loved to walk in the outdoors, like your daughter it seems to me

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Ah lovely as usual, K. You should put together a collection of your grandmother stories. I would pick that up in a heartbeat. I love that she called you last…lol. And her yelling at the cemetery officers. ha ha. Love this all to bits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She got them to follow her back to the plot in their car. To see a handful of stones from their own path! I am always thinking about a collection of stories about her…one day I will string them together. Thanks for your encouragement, Paul.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Such a captivating tale this morning. And what’s unsaid here (but implied) is your grandmother’s grief compared to your childhood sense of the carefree and boredom. Cemeteries kind of float above normal life, don’t they? The way they can be many things, many emotions.


  10. When I read your stories, it feels like I’m sitting on a porch swing with a huge, beautiful book. The imagery and feels of this are incredible. You are the real deal, K – I’d read an entire book full of your memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. We aren’t Jewish, either. But I always leave stones when I visit a grave. I think it is a nice way to honor someone and say, “I’ve been here.” I love it when I go to Kylie’s grave and there are stones on it. It really means a lot to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. On finding your place, I curled my feet beneath my bum and placed a hot mug of tea beside me, time to find a little read; just enough to keep body and soul happy. What a treat! thank you for letting me join you in peeking through the gates of the mausoleum. Your brother reminds me of my eldest sister who learnt the lords prayer backwards just to see the fear on my face. A rich and descriptive piece nicely done. 😇

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Reading your story took me immediately back to being a young child at my grandmothers house. It wasn’t my brother that shared the “eerie stories” of grave yards, it was my grandmother. I still remember the stories at age 57. You paint a vivid picture of your grandmother!


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