Seasonal Care — Memoir
"Seasonal Care," published in Promethean, is a story from my memoir, A Raspberry Muumuu from My Mother, which won the David Dortort Prize in Creative Writing.
Today we’re going to the cemetery to wish my mother a happy birthday.
The last time I went, fourteen months ago, my daughter Alexis and I dragged my poor mother up and down narrow cobblestone walkways in ninety-five-degree heat, crisscrossing over lumpy graves, and trudging back to the sun-baked parking lot. All the while, my out-of-breath mother berated us for not following her barely decipherable notes, scribbled on the cemetery’s printed driving instructions, warning us to enter the second entrance and not the first.
I remember. I remember that stifling day; I remember the wrong turn; I remember how my mother Norma insisted we come to make sure the plots were taken care of, wanting to take our Springer Spaniel Abby, who, free from her leash, ran ahead to pee on another family’s grassy mound; I remember my mother slumped on the stone bench hyperventilating near her future resting place; and I remember Alexis’s and my joint feelings—then unexpressed—that in going to Norma’s grave, we had almost killed her.
Silently, I worry now that we’ll get lost again in the dizzying maze of gray granite headstones, balled hedges, and ivy-bedded lanes; silently I worry that my mother’s gravestone will mark the wrong plot, or be missing entirely; silently I worry that Abby will detect my mother’s odor and dig through the still loosely packed mound in that maniacal way she did when we passed an abandoned tennis court near my old country home and she pawed three feet under a wild thatch and unearthed a mud-caked, golden tennis ball, probably buried there since my last game thirty years before.
Silently. I tell myself this will be hard. Unlike my lifetime of emotional sabotage, this time I’ll break free. I will forget that my mother blamed me when she caught her oven mitt on fire (my stove was too complicated), that she didn’t talk to me for three months after she insulted a man on the plane (I had been sympathetic to the stranger), that she raged at me for having friends after reading my hidden letters, that she expected me to arbitrate her own twisted battles with her mother, that she made me kiss my father “who loves me” even when his clinical depression made him a stone statue. No, this time, I’ll beat my breast and fall on my mother’s grave like a born-again supplicant. Silently, all morning, I feel the well of grief rising; silently, I’m relieved that I didn’t arrange a formal unveiling for the following week, the actual one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. This day, on Norma’s birthday, with just Alexis and Abby, will be all I can take.
This morning of silence is interrupted by a phone call from the cemetery. A woman reminds me that the anniversary date is soon approaching. As if I need a reminder! “Do you want us to plant ivy for the unveiling?” she asks.
“Oh, it hasn’t been planted yet?”
“Well, we usually do it when we prepare the area for the unveiling.”
“Funny, that you’re calling now,” I say, “I was planning to go to the cemetery this very afternoon,” I stop my sentence, thinking that maybe I should reschedule our trip to Queens until the ivy is planted.
“Aren’t you having an unveiling?” the cemetery woman asks.
“No, not a formal one,” I say with false determination. “You can plant the ivy now.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to prepare the area for a ceremony? You can have an unveiling anytime within the year, though of course the year is almost up.”
“No,” I say. I want to explain that I’m not a horrible daughter; I want to explain that we had planned to come on my mother’s birthday. Then I realize that this woman, this professional guilt-inducer, can point out the obvious: I can go to the cemetery more than once.
“People will be coming on their own,” I add, wondering who these people will be. No one in my family mentioned the anniversary to me. No one inquired about an unveiling. No one in my family was big on cemeteries.
On the drive to the cemetery, in between needless reminders to Alexis about the turn on the second entrance, I chatter incessantly. “Are you upset?” I ask.
With one hand clutched around a paper cup of coffee and the other on the steering wheel, Alexis seems unable to manage a third task such as speaking. Instead, she nods.
“So am I,” I say, “even if I don’t show it.”
“Should we stop to buy lilacs?” Alexis remembers her grandmother’s favorite flower.
“Jews don’t put flowers on graves,” I say. “They place small stones on the monuments to show they were there, to show that the deceased is still loved and remembered. I guess stones last and flowers don’t. Besides, it’s probably impossible to get lilacs in late August.”
Returning to silence, we drive onto the street leading to the cemetery, bypassing the first entrance and making the correct turn into the parking area. We walk up the designated hill, and stop at the turnoff point, passing an elderly man wearing a brown uniform and carrying a hoe.
“Is this row S?” I ask warily, expecting him to admonish us about bringing a dog to the cemetery. I fasten Abby’s leash onto her collar.
“You’re right on it,” he says with a grin. Two of his front teeth are missing. “Yes, you’re on the right track.” He winks at the dog.
Turning right on row S, we follow the path and there, between Schwartzwald/Stander and Epstein/Ensler, is the family plot. This time, it’s so easy to find.
In slow motion, I approach the gravesite. I approved my mother’s engraving and saw a photocopy of her tombstone. But still, to be here….
“Grandma’s grave is crooked,” I say.
“I feel good about that toothless groundskeeper,” Alexis says, as if this is a natural response to my comment. “It’s nice that Grandma will have a friendly person tending her.”
“The grave slants to the side,” I insist. “Maybe there won’t be enough room to put a coffin in one of the empty plots.” I have an instant image of the gap-toothed groundskeeper lowering my plain pine coffin into that space only to find that it doesn’t fit and that there is no space for me.
I feel a strong pull from the leash handle. Abby drags me down the path, past the family plot. I depress the leash button and yank as the retractable cord shortens. “Stop,” I yell and Abby backtracks as my command echoes. Sniffing along the path’s edges, she nibbles at grass stalks. I relax the leash and she suddenly veers from the path and runs over my mother’s unplanted mound of earth, knocking down a small stick with a rectangular marker noting the names of my mother and her funeral home.
“Abby!” I cry, jerking her away. I pick up the stick and anchor it back into place.
Nonplussed, the dog skips to inspect the grass around the bench.
“She’s not interested in Grandma’s grave,” I say. “I don’t know why I expected her to sniff the ground and dig in after her.”
“I guess Grandma’s six feet under and enclosed in a casket. Too much of a barricade from human odor, even for Abby.”
“Still,” I say, convinced that when it comes to hearing and smelling, dogs have inexplicable powers.
Alexis begins to cry.
Our time must be up; we have to go this instant.
“My book is going to be published,” I blurt to the mound. Feeling selfish, I add, “Alexis filmed a day on a new television series. She had her own trailer parked in front of Brooklyn College, three blocks from our old home. Otherwise, we’re all well.”
Alexis and I stand for a few minutes, each in our own world of repression. Finally, she says, “Look at the stones.”
I step back farther from my mother’s tombstone. When I first got there, I gave it a cursory look, afraid of my reaction to the still-fresh plot. Now, I see what I missed. Four stones. A large one lies below my mother’s last name. Three small ones form a tiny chevron after the last line, “A Valiant Woman.”
“Who could they be from?” I ask.
“A friend or a relative.”
“I can’t imagine anyone coming without telling me,” I say. “Her friend Ruth, I know, has relatives here, I think even her husband. She comes often. My mother used to ask Ruth to visit my father. So maybe it was Ruth.”
“But there are four stones,” Alexis says.
Who could have been here? Did my mother have secret admirers? Were the stones placed by workers from the funeral home? Or was it customary for the cemetery to lay stones on the graves during the mourning period? Perhaps our friend, the groundskeeper, somehow knew we were coming and wanted to leave his mark of respect.
Alexis sits on the stone bench gazing at the bed of ivy forming the ground cover of the eldest relatives. Abby sprawls under the bench, between Alexis’s feet. I stand to the side of the bench, and begin my final rounds. I say hello to my uncle David, who died too young, grin recognition at my grandmother, nod shyly at my grandfather and great-grandmother—those I never knew. I allow myself to linger at my father’s side, embarrassed for him in front of his family, knowing what I know—that this man had squandered so much potential, that this man wallowed in lies of omission, that this man took from me my right to speak. I will him to thank me for my lifetime of silence, so different from his own mental imprisonment. I note the incorrect birthday engraved on his stone, smiling at the irony that even this very last fact about him somehow missed. At this moment, and for only a moment, my anger at my missing father melts into compassion.
“It’s peaceful here,” I say, recalling my mother’s exact words when she sat on that same bench. An overwhelming feeling of belongingness encompasses me. I don’t want to leave this place, this place where I dreaded coming. My family is here; I am home.
“Grandpa’s grave is the only one without ivy,” Alexis says.
“That’s true. I wonder why.” I also wonder why I didn’t notice this before.
On the way out, I stop in the office and order ivy for my parents’ graves. I tell the cemetery woman that my mother’s grave looks crooked.
“Not to worry,” she assures me. “Everything was measured just so.”
I am still not convinced and make a mental note to bring a tape measurer next time.
“There was a blue circle on the family stone,” I say. “Does it signify perpetual care?”
Shaking her head, she turns to her computer for verification. “No you have seasonal care,” she says. “The ivy will be planted this year, but it lasts only a season.”
“Seasonal care. Are you sure it isn’t perpetual?”
“Seasonal,” she repeats, showing me another sticker, larger and bluer, with “perpetual care” in big, white letters.
After signing the check for the ivy, I hesitate. Maybe I should change the category. Maybe I should replace the blue dot with a perpetual care sticker for everyone to see. But who is there to know? Then I remember the four stones.
“Do you want to change your status?” the woman asks, ready with the pricelist.
“No, no matter,” I say. “We’ll keep seasonal. I’ll be back again.” Certainly at the same time next year, for my mother’s birthday.