Cemetery Summers

When I was little, my family moved into a tiny little house in a tiny little neighborhood.

Our neighbors were tiny little elderly folks who kept dusty ribbon candy in glass dishes by the door for small children who may or may not ever have worked up the courage to visit them.

There was old Dorothy across the street. She kept rows of cages filled with rabbits in her back yard. If you were brave enough to chat with her, she smiled at you and gave you a pet guinea pig.

But you had to work your head around the fact that she chain-smoked directly through her tracheal tube.

There was old Mr Jurdo three houses down. He took his morning constitutional around our tiny block and always wore a neon red jacket and a brown cap. He didn’t chat. He grunted at you and cleared his throat forcefully by way of greeting.

We steered our red wagon the other way.

Old Virgil lived uphill by a house or two. He never left it. When you were forced into a polite visit, his dim house smelled of old person and aged furniture and musty carpet. He never moved from his chair – perhaps he had melted into it – so we felt comfortable lingering in the doorway and hollering the morning news towards his good ear.

Only one – and there are many – of the interesting facts of where we lived was that our street ran along the border of a large cemetery.

Four houses down on the opposite side of our street lived a little girl who was besties with my sister and we frequently played there.

She had a little pool and a calico cat and an elevated veranda running along the back of her house.

During the summer, we would sit on this veranda and watch funerals.

We had never attended a funeral ourselves. We had no personal relationship with death.

So we were free to imagine any number of scenarios below us.

Most of the time, we could figure out who the preacher was. We decided whether the deceased was famous based upon how many people were in attendance. If awnings and chairs were set up, you knew it was going to be a long sermon. If flowers completely covered the grave, then the deceased must be female.

We watched the long procession of cars and the long procession of mourners. They would huddle like penguins, then gradually fade away until only the coffin remained, and a lone gentleman standing aloof near the hill.

The curtain dropped on Act 1, but there was more to see from our balcony seats.

We could see the tractor waiting behind the hill. We could see the crematorium, tucked away in another area from the road, hidden far from the burial plots.

Cemetery workers stepped forward and slowly lowered the coffin with wenches. They used the tractor to fill in the grave and put the flowers back into place on the slightly mounded earth.

And then everyone was gone.

The silent movie ended.

Sometimes in the evening when dad came home, our family walked in the cemetery, enjoying the distant ocean breeze. We traced names on tombstones and ran along the edge of the small pond and smelled flowers wilting over the newcomers.

It always felt like a place of peace. Oddly, like a place of welcome.

Like everyone had been snugly tucked in for the night.

And I wonder now, all these years later, what our elderly neighbors felt about it?

Did they ever turn around to peer past their own backyards into the cemetery or did they keep their eyes fixed firmly on the small children wandering through their tiny front gardens?

Did they wait patiently for those rare moments of interaction, however brief, knowing a final welcome waited even more patiently, right around the corner?

And what, then, when those glimpses of the future merged?

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