Mother’s Day ~ The Cemetery: Stories From Higley Hill



Recently my Dad took me to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave. This would be my first visit since the funeral and what he actually said when he invited me to come with him was, “Let’s visit your mother at the cemetery”.

I have different ideas about life after death. I did not feel my mother’s presence in that strange place and I hated thinking of her lying in the coffin beneath my feet. We didn’t stay long. He said a prayer and I watched a wild turkey walk through the gravestones.

My father was concerned about the flowers. A pot of tulips had wilted. A hyacinth was drooping and looked weary. He doesn’t know much about gardening so I explained to him they were bulbs and if I planted them in the ground they would return each spring.

The next day I bought bright yellow shasta daisies and a spade and returned to the cemetery alone. The cemetery is in the neighborhood where I grew up and where my Dad still lives. He walks through the graveyard almost every morning to visit my Mom.

I quickly threw myself into the task and started digging. Many of the graves around me had gardens in full bloom. Little trinkets were left at the headstones. Teddy bears, heart rocks, seashells. There is a section of the cemetery where a community of Mung Chinese are buried. On holy days the families bring hibachis and cook chicken shish kebab on wooden sticks that they leave for their deceased loved ones.

A man parked behind my car and stood by a nearby grave while I planted the bulbs. His hands were folded in front of him, his head bowed. Every once in a while he wiped his eyes with his finger. He left before I finished planting the Shasta daisies.

Walking back to my car to get a bottle of water for the plants, I passed the gravestone where the man had stood. His name was carved on the stone along with his birthdate. He was a year younger than me. His wife was four years younger and had passed away three years ago at the age of fifty-four. I wondered how often he came to visit and what these visits did to ease his sorrow.

I didn’t stay long at my mother’s grave. It felt awkward and I couldn’t stop thinking about her lying in her coffin. I set out for a walk around the cemetery, trying to remember her the way she was before Alzheimer’s stole her from us.

I had seen a gravestone years ago when my father brought me here to show me the plot. The stone was already in place with both my parents’ names on it along with their birth dates. It seemed so morbid and strange but I told him it was a nice location. The grave I was looking for had a photo of a man in his forties. He liked motorcycles and trucks. I know this because there was a collection of them placed along the grave. He had a sense of humor too. Carved on his headstone was the following admonishment: “I told you I was sick.”

I thought about other cemeteries I had visited. Mount Auburn in Cambridge with its beautiful flowering springtime trees. Boston’s historic Park Street Cemetery in autumn when fallen leaves cover the ground where Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and  Mother Goose are buried. The cemeteries in Spain where people place ashes in rows of boxes that reminded me of the post office.

My mother’s brother, my godfather, is buried at Notre Dame in Pawtucket, RI where large statues of angels greet you at the gates to the cemetery. At the graveside following the funeral my Uncle Eddie brought a boom box and played Judy Collins’ version of Amazing Grace. After the service, as I walked back to my car, I passed an angel resting her head on a large tombstone. I turned and saw my brother still standing by the grave with his hand resting on Uncle Donald’s coffin.

My brother visits my mother’s grave regularly and so do both my sisters.

Driving alone in my car in my Uncle’s funeral procession,  the Foo Fighters song These Days played on the radio. It was a raucous, rebellious tune with crashing drums and loud screams. I irreverently rolled the windows down and played the song really loud.

One of these days the clocks will stop
and time won’t mean a thing
One of these days your eyes will close
and pain will disappear
One of these days your heart will stop
and play its final beat

My Uncle fell ill suddenly. He didn’t feel well on his annual road trip from Rhode Island to Florida where he wintered. The doctors in Florida told him he had liver cancer and his prognosis was not good. He had only a few days to live. He gracefully accepted the news and told them he was seventy years old and had lived a good life that had come full circle. All he asked of them was that he not suffer. He went home, ordered a hospital bed, and placed it at the window with a view of Fort Lauderdale Beach.

He was a gay man back in a time when many people were “still in the closet” and he didn’t “come out” until his divorce after ten years of marriage to my Aunt Linda. I remember she always liked books and one Christmas she gave me a copy of V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. I don’t know where she is now. I haven’t seen her in decades. Memory is a tricky thing. I don’t know why these are the random thoughts I keep and why I am sharing them here.

My mother’s last years were difficult. On the other hand, her brother called his friends and invited them to visit him in his final days. He told them there would be no tears and if anyone cried they would have to leave. This was to be a celebration of life. I admire him for this and his bravery in the face of the unknown.

My mother entered the scary unknown long before she died and her last weeks were difficult.

There was a graveyard in New Brunswick, Canada that my husband and I stopped at while vacationing in the Atlantic Provinces. We were looking for the grave of the young daughter of a man, Al LeBlanc, who worked with my husband. She died along with five of her high school teammates on an icy night after a hockey game. Their car slid off a bridge and crashed through the ice. They are buried side by side, their pictures on the headstones.

While they worked together painting houses, Al would talk to Rich about the sadness that pervaded his marriage after the accident. His wife never recovered from her loss and would often say, “We never should have moved back to Canada.” As if, had she not made this one choice, she could have saved her daughter from the tragedies of life.

I never met my father-in-law but I have visited his grave in the town center of Sudbury, MA. Also buried in this graveyard are the children of two people my husband knows well. Placed at the headstone of infant twins who didn’t live long after their birth are toy cars and plastic ponies and teddy bears. The other grave had fresh flowers although the teenage boy who was killed in a motorcycle accident died many years ago. The last time I visited this cemetery I was not yet a mother myself but I understood a mother’s heartbreak must be one of the deepest of all sorrows.

Not long ago I visited a very old, neglected graveyard in Vermont with a friend of mine who is a stonemason. Rows of tipped headstones made from thin slabs of granite were hard to read. The inscriptions were worn from time and weather. A few of the gravestones were fused to trees that had grown up around them. Loved ones no longer visited this place. Instead Nature wrapped her arms around the deceased and covered them with moss and dried leaves.

My friend told me about the art of stonemasonry as we walked through the cemetery. He pointed out the poorly constructed stone arch at the entrance to the cemetery and we looked for small rocks for chinking. I had just started my fourth novel and in that graveyard in Vermont a character came alive that day.

James Salter once wrote, “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”

All of these memories swirled through my mind as I planted flowers at my mother’s grave. I wasn’t thinking about her and this left me feeling sad. Where was she? Where were the free floating memories that should have come to me as I knelt by her grave? Instead I felt awkward and forced to think about her in this uncomfortable place.

Memories come easier in places where I once shared a day with someone. Music and photographs also trigger memories. Or making scrambled eggs with onions.

It wasn’t my mother who made her eggs that way. It was a friend of ours who died too young. Anytime I make scrambled eggs with onions I am transported back to a beach house in the sand dunes on Cape Cod where Mark made the eggs with onions. He didn’t ask if everyone liked their eggs that way because he automatically assumed we all  liked our eggs that way.

That moment in time with a friend who is now gone ended up in my third novel, Life Is All This. I gave it to a character named Timothy who also died too soon.

James Salter also said, “Writing is not a science… every writer I know and admire has essentially drawn either from his own life or his knowledge of things in life…. Almost all great books have actual people in them.”

My mother didn’t like to cook. She was a homemaker, someone who loved to decorate and sew. She made curtains and reupholstered chairs. One year she made Easter outfits for me and my sisters that included pillbox hats like the ones Jackie Kennedy wore.

My mother had a difficult childhood. Her father worked in the textiles mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and when she was very young he contracted pleurisy. He was bedridden for a long time and my grandmother had to go to work. They had no family to pitch in and daycare was nonexistent in those days so they brought my mother to a nearby orphanage run by French speaking nuns.

I remember the stories my mother told us about the orphanage. The rows of beds, the bowls of peas that she never ate again once she left. How she hated it there. When my daughters were young we loved reading the Madeline books. My mother said she never read those books to us because it reminded her too much of her time in the orphanage.

Her parents would visit on Sundays and bring her gifts that the nuns would later take from her because the other girls were truly orphans and no one brought them presents. I can no longer remember how long she stayed there but she carried those memories with her all her life. She was a nervous, anxious woman and often had migraines. I remember the smell of vinegar on the damp facecloth she put on her forehead when she retreated to her dark bedroom.

After her parents financial situation improved and her father got better she returned home. Because they both worked, she spent her summers in Brooklyn with her Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Pete. They were childless and at one point wanted to adopt my mother.

Uncle Pete was from Sweden and captained a tugboat. I loved the stories my mother told about riding with him along the Hudson River. She also met an older gentleman on the rooftop of their apartment building. He was a painter and he bought my mother an easel and taught her to how to paint. I have one of her paintings in my home in Vermont- a couple riding in a sleigh through the mountains. A memento of my wedding in Lake Louise.

After the fire at my parent’s condominium my mother’s Alzheimer’s worsened. She spent six weeks in a hospital in Providence where the doctors tried to adjust her medications and calm her down. She slept all day and at night ran through the halls calling for her mother and father. Her memories were gone but somewhere deep inside was the little girl who didn’t understand why her parents brought her to an orphanage.

My mother never blamed her parents for what happened. It was the Depression, times were hard. She understood that none of us are perfect and life is often hard. We are often faced with difficult choices or no choice at all. Years later, when I was what my mother considered a rebellious teenager, she  would call her mother every day and ask for advice.

I don’t know that my Mom ever really understood me but I do know that she loved me. Although I was never as close to her as my sisters’ were I never doubted her love.

I was an adventurous risk taker and unconventional. All my mother ever wanted was a conventional life. She was an anxious worrier. Bob Dylan once said, “People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.” My mother often worried about me and I think some of the things I did overwhelmed her. She didn’t understand choices like quitting a good job to backpack through Europe. To her, security meant everything.

Now that I am a mother I have come to better understand my own mother and my grandmother. Being a mother is one of the most difficult jobs you will ever do, and it never ends. Life is full of sadness and loss when all you want for your children is joy and happiness.

Two days after I planted the flowers at my mother’s graveside I found myself unexpectedly not returning home to Vermont. Instead I was flying across the country to Lake Tahoe to help my oldest daughter move to Colorado.

After arriving late at night and before driving to Tahoe, I spent the night at a hotel in Reno, Nevada. My Dad texted me at six a.m. on the East Coast. It was three a.m in Nevada.

His texting has improved. He no longer writes sentences without spaces between the words. This is what he sent:

You did good work on the grave mom will love them dad

To Be Continued…..

5 thoughts on “Mother’s Day ~ The Cemetery: Stories From Higley Hill

  1. This is a most beautiful, heartfelt, wonderful piece of writing to read on this Mother’s Day, dear Sheila. I am glad that you share your random thoughts with us. Writing helps to work out what bother’s us, no? Random? Perhaps, but it coalesces into a magnificent piece that radiates love and understanding. That’s a lot.

    My father died in 1984 at age sixty-two, two years younger than I am now. Most of my family members on both sides are buried in Notre Dame in Pawtucket. My Dad did not want to be buried there.

    “They pack them in like sardines. I want to be buried in the rolling hills of Cumberland.”

    He got he wish. He is at buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Cumberland. In the rolling hills. My Mom joined him there in 2006.

    My parents-in-law are at St. Ann in Cranston.

    We never “visit.” I’m not squeamish; I just don’t feel them there. So different from my upbringing when the family piled into the car regularly, but especially on Memorial Day, for our frequent treks to Notre Dame to roam among the graves of deceased family.

    I find much comfort in this: “Nature wrapped her arms around the deceased and covered them with moss and dried leaves.” It’s such a beautiful image. Our family among us in this way, cared for my Mother Nature, is real.

    It was a joy to read of the origins of a character in your next book. I recognized him.

    Happy Mother’s Day, my friend. I look forward to the next installment. Your are profoundly gifted. Thank you for sharing it so willingly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Connie. My Dad had originally purchased a gravesite at one of those large cemeteries too. The ones where “they pack them in like sardines.” It was my sister who still lives nearby who convinced him to buy a plot in the neighborhood. It is so much nicer there although I don’t really understand it all. “Scatter my ashes in some of the places I loved,” is what I will tell my daughters.

    And a P.S. to my dear editor: I found some mistakes after I posted the blog. It always happens. I can read it a hundred times and when it’s posted on the page I catch some more mistakes. I corrected them and I want you to know I learned so much from your editing my 4th novel that before posting I caught some non-sequiturs. I can’t thank you enough.


  3. We all make mistakes when typing. Our thoughts are put down as we think and they are never initially perfectly expressed. I need an editor, too. We often see what we expect to see, even when reading carefully. Fresh eyes are key. I always make typos, write misplaced modifiers, am redundant, and yes, non-sequiturs as well. You’re catching them more often. Learning curves work. 😉

    Thank you for your kindness. And even more for your friendship.

    (I tell my family, “Put me in the cheapest casket and I want it closed for the festivities.” Our loved ones live in our hearts and souls, long after they’e passed. Always. We know they are with us. Where we are planted, in my opinion, matters not a whit).

    Liked by 1 person

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