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.