Thursday, October 27, 2011

Resting in Peace

Out here in the 'burbs, yardwork is close to religion. The state of your lawn is treated as a proxy for the state of your soul and the judgments handed down are decidedly Old Testament in nature.

The neighbor two doors down has his routine set in stone. I don't even think the man has to rake. The leaves are simply too afraid to sully his perfect grass and his perfect brick walk. The pansies are already in for the winter, planted exactly 12 inches apart at the base of a beautifully maintained dogwood. His yard is the culmination of all things that are possible by noon on a Saturday and everything that I have deemed 'unimportant.'

Our yard demonstrates a decided lack of devotion to the fine art of yardwork and, possibly, character defects that are long past the point of remediation.

T and I like it this way. We don't let the grass get a foot-and-a-half high or anything but we sure as hell aren't going to spray carcinogens around to control the weeds. Sporadic raking is our form of rebellion. We have bigger issues than the lawn.

We held out until this past Sunday, when the state of the yard had reached a point somewhere below our pathetic standards.

C entertained herself by playing in the leaves and pointing out that we'd be able to play sooner if we worked faster and took fewer breaks. Too smart by half, that daughter of mine. She wanted me to hurry up and finish so that we could walk to the cemetery at the end of the street.

C is beyond excited about Halloween. She wants to hear scary stories and watch scary movies. She's been talking about ghosts (ghost-ehz) and graveyards for weeks.

"The dead people are sleeping in there," she confides as we drive past our neighborhood cemetery, "but you won't put me in the ground when I die."

For better or worse, T and I have just decided to give it to her straight about death. I'm not a huge believer of telling kids the truth about everything. There's something to be said for blissful ignorance but, we don't have much choice in the matter. It's a virtual death parade around here and she spends the day with her older cousins and their theories about the afterlife while I'm at work.

Naturally, she's curious about her sister and her grandfathers and I don't think I'd be doing her any favors by answering her questions with lies. But it's just so dismaying to listen to her wrestle with such big issues in her raspy little voice. She can't even figure out if you pronounce it 'death' or 'deaf' but she sure knows what it is.

As we walked, we talked about the weather and the autumn leaves...and death. "R can fly, " she told me, "and when I die, I'll fly away too." I kicked at the fallen leaves and fretted about her emotional development. Am I raising her to be sort of creepy with all of this talk about death/deaf? Was this her idea or mine?

A few of the perfectly maintained yards we passed were tricked out for Halloween. Pumpkins, light-up pumpkins, fake spiderwebs on the boxwoods. Fake headstones artfully placed in the shrubs. I silently added another item to my list of things that make me feel like a social misfit--wrong political leanings, shabby lawn, takes four-year-old, possibly death-obsessed daughter to visit graveyard yet, finds headstone decorations offensive

The graveyard is old by American standards, founded in 1776 by the Lutherans. Despite the age it was just as tidy as the yards of the living. I quirked a judge-y eyebrow at the neatly trimmed grass. Do we really have to impose our freakish opinions about lawn care on the dead too? Unless the cemetery residents are imposing our local brand of fastidiousness from beyond the grave. Why push the daisies up when you could be pulling them back down instead?

"There are a lot of babies," C noted after I'd read a few of the inscriptions. She sounded surprised, and maybe a little relieved, to find out that other families had dead babies too.

Truthfully I felt a little relieved too. Who needs to fit in with the living neighbors when there are all of these families with dead babies right down the street?

We walked down the rows looking for the oldest marker but many of the stones were worn down by time and weather. There were many familiar names, the founding families of our town, names I remember from childhood.

Once we found the oldest grave, a revolutionary war soldier, we set out searching for the newest.

I was surprised to see how recent it was. 1961. I was even more surprised to see that it was my neighbor's infant daughter. The neighbor from two doors down with the perfect lawn that I was passing judgement on a few paragraphs ago. His grave and his wife's are there waiting for them, the last two spots to be filled.

When will I learn?


  1. Babyloss is everywhere, isn't it? And I think we'll be giving it to Angus straight as well. No point beating around the bush about it, it is what it is.

  2. Oh wow, that is incredible. Your heart must have skipped a beat. Mine certainly did when I read that last para.
    Our oldest is almost 6. It's hard to know how much information to give him. I guess it will be on a need to know/how much he asks basis. The other 2 little fellas are 3, so no need for discussion at the moment. It's all so hard. They should be innocent to all of this until old age, like it's supposed to be.
    The was a great read. x

  3. Oh wow. You really told this weekend story so perfectly.

    C and I have differing opinions on how much and what E, and now O, should know about their sister. I'm all for full disclosure, but C is not on board. We also have a cemetery at the end of our street and spend a lot of time there. Ours is old, too, but Calla has a marker there. She's not there but we have a little place. I am always struck by how many babies are there, too--it makes me feel both sad and a little less lonely.

    And here's my thing about the leaves: they just keep falling, so why am I killing myself to rake them up? (And by "myself" I of course mean C.) And front-yeard Halloween graveyard displays? Nuh uh.

    C sounds like one wise little kiddo. Not at creepy at all, just a lovely little person.

  4. Oh, man, that gave me chills. It surprises me who we share this journey with. I ran into this woman I used to work with who hated me. With a passion. When I ran into her at the market, she asked me how many children I had, and I bumbled through that answer, and she said she had lost twins at 23 weeks too. We share that now. Sometimes this community gives the illusion that we would all be friends, but some of us have to be the manicured lawn dude and others like me. On a side note, I wish I could channel my grief energy into good landscaping habits. You and T sound like we subscribe to the same school of thought in regards to lawn care.

    I wonder that too, you know, if I am creating a little Goth chick obsessed with the Smiths and death, because I talk about death and we have morbid conversations. Morbid from the outside. Normal from in here. Except she isn't. When given the choice to bring up her dead sister or talk about, say, Strawberry Shortcake, she always prefers the latter. Maybe the black eyeliner will come in ten years or so...

  5. That last paragraph. Wow. Just, wow. It really is everywhere. I wonder, sometimes, why that still surprises me.

    Your neighbor, or at least his attitude towards yardwork, reminds me of my dad, who has specific alternating patterns to use when he mows the lawn. I might be more like that if I had more time...or not.

  6. Wow! just wow, that last paragraph took me by surprise.
    I hadn't considered that we might be raising death obsessed children,oh dear, one more thing to worry about. x

  7. Well it's a good job that my far tidier and more conscientious husband is responsible for the yard work around these parts. Or our grass probably would be a foot and a half high.
    So glad that we don't have the whole Halloween graveyard display things here in the UK. I actually found myself getting cross with, of all things, my calendar which is cupcake themed and has a Halloween cupcake for October with an icing gravestone on the top. Argh! I can't decide which is worse, shall we make death cute and yummy OR creepy, scary and associated with monsters?!
    I've been trying to find a word that describes how I feel about these conversations with J. I think you've hit on it here, dismayed. Because I don't really want to have to introduce her to all of this but I can't figure out a way around it due to the whole virtual death parade thing. I'm currently having agonies over my choice of middle name for R.
    As we live so close to the children's cemetery we have a lot of neighbours that we would fit right in with, I've always felt that we don't fit in with the living neighbours so much. When will I learn? You just never know, do you?

  8. Oh. Shiver.

    And a high five of solidarity for the living children who are interested in "deaf". Only yesterday Ava told me she had a dream with her eyes open about Iris' tree being cut down in front of a visitor. The visitor was visibly shaken. But yes, give it to them straight. Absolutely. x

  9. When outside the US, I've run into some differences. Maybe it's because we were in Nepal and various places in Africa and the culture was obviously different from what I was used to - but they're shocked by the amount of time and money Americans spend on their yards. At least, the people I met were. It's always made me feel better, ever since, about not "keeping up with the neighbors" in the yard work department. Besides which, I have no aspiration...

    The other thing is, death is not treated the same. I need to beware of generalizing too much, but from what I saw, they're much more at home with it than we tend to be. My Dad told me in Nepal (he was a doctor there) that no one would name their child until they turned five, because so few children survived. I heard more frank talk about death overseas than anyone will tolerate in my home town.

    None of this means that we should ever get used to children dying - far from it - but I do wonder why it shouldn't be as normal to talk about death as it is about birth? No one seems to shrink from talking about the beginning of life. Why is the end off limits?

    Boy, do I ever love what you write, how you write, what you say, what you don't say.

    Cathy in Missouri