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?

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I have a memory of my dad. The Phils on TV with Harry K calling the game, a summer breeze through our open back door and the smell of rain on hot asphalt. We used to sit together on the couch and eat oranges. He'd hold each wedge up to the light to check for seeds and hand it over to me. I was allowed a few sips of his beer, a completely un-ironic PBR. Anything with a blue ribbon has to be good

I picture him in a small house on the water with a big porch. Fishing tackle piled by the door. A cold beer and a bag of pretzels. Harry K died last year so he can listen to him call the game again. Some of the players are the same as they were when I was a kid too thanks to death, that crazy motherfucker.

These are his things. At least they're the things that I think of as his. His things that were our things and, I guess, are now my things even though I like to think we still share them. Somewhere.

C has a few things. A few of the same things as my dad, in fact. We sit on the couch together and eat pears. I let her have a few sips of beer. I play music that he liked on the car stereo so that she can sing along. His things, my things, and now her things through some combination of nurturing and genetics.

I suppose C came into the world with some things but it feels like she was an empty vessel waiting to be filled. At first, T and I did most of the filling but she's starting to branch out on her own. Favorite songs that I don't know. Favorite games that she learns from her friends. For now our shared things hold her tightly in our little family orbit but, eventually, the weight of her other things will pull her away.

We have some toys and books that were intended for R stored in a dusty box along with a snipping of hair and a faint impression of her foot. We say that these are her things but they really aren't. She arrived empty and departed the same. Thingless.

I used to think death was her thing. Or maybe I thought her death was my thing. Or maybe that death was just such a substantial thing that it would hold us both in its orbit forever. Nothing or all things? It's so hard to tell from here.

My under-occupied brain has created some things for her. I imagine that she's quieter than C. She is wise beyond her years. Despite the fact that my daughters share 100% of their genes and sit at the tail end of two noisy, sarcastic, opinionated families, I envision R as infinitely serene, beyond the concerns of worldly existence. Here, C cackles hysterically at fart jokes while R smiles gently in appreciation of C's laughter. Somewhere.


I wrote most of this post a couple of weeks ago while I was eating leftover crab bisque from the Still Life 365 open house. That's right, y'all, if you arrive early and stay late, you get to take home leftovers. And, Angie can cook just as well as she writes.

At the open house there was some crazy hijinks with an errant water gun, stories about koala encounters, an 85 lb dog that tried to curl up in my lap, old friends, new friends, people who seem like friends even though we'd never met before. The rainbow babies that I'd hoped for so hard while staring at my computer screen were up and walking around looking just as wonderfully ridiculous as toddlers always look.

It was all so ordinary and easy. But it wasn't like the ordinariness of my life before. This was hard-won ease, a collective decision to share a burden or to set it down all at once. It's a challenging maneuver that takes a village (or at least one Angie-like person) but, once death doesn't have to be the thing, other things rush in to fill the space.


The objects piled in R's memory box have never really felt like they had anything to do with her. Some day I'll pass them along to C and she can decide whether she needs physical reminders of R's brief stay on this side of the somewhere.

R never chose a favorite color or favorite song. She'll never arrive home with her pockets full of interesting things she found on the playground. But she wasn't empty when she arrived and she wasn't empty when she departed.

We all have a space where we keep other peoples' things. We can use it to store things that we learn from them or just to remember and appreciate them. R's life and her death have expanded this space for me, my internal somewhere. The people I've met because of her. The kindness they show each other. The way that they continue to enjoy and appreciate the world that they shared with their children so briefly. These are her things. And, because of her, they are my things. The things that we share. Somewhere.