When I was eight years old, my Italian family's field trips to Mt. Carmel cemetery were mandatory pilgrimages of faith and tradition.  While my sister and I picked dandelions and played he loves me, he loves me not, my parents pulled weeds and trimmed the grass and my brother sorted out the family tree.   I saw the occasional bunny hop past, as we did our own version of grave-hopping.

It was only natural then that when a friend said, "I forgot today is Mother's Day so I have to cancel our walk and run to the cemetery," I considered joining her.  But then I remembered that my mother considered trips to the graveyard a waste of time, and she'd be more pleased if I got some writing done. 

As a little girl, I remembered checking out the mini-mausoleums, Lilliputian houses of the wealthy, that were mixed in with the tombstones of the less well-off and the tiny stone "pillows" of those not inclined to go for broke.  If the people buried in the little granite houses are so rich I asked my mom, why didn't they build bigger houses?  They don't need a lot of room, she said, they're not going to be doing much in the way of entertaining.

Mother's Day and Father's Day, and sometimes Memorial Day, too, would find us on our knees in Section H, Block 12, Lot 115 praying for the poor souls though I was pretty sure they had all gone straight to heaven.  Just wait 'til I climb down from this stool my mother would threaten from her polishing perch when my brother would burst into his creepy Boy Scout ditty …the worms go in, the worms go out, the worms play pinochle in your mouth.  At some point my sister and I would put in some pout-time because, despite his inappropriate singing, my brother was the only one who got to lug the sprinkling can to and from the graves because the spigot was down by the road.  But even with all of the silly antics, I didn't really like visiting the dead.  The looks on my mom's and dad's faces always made me sad, and I would inevitably wipe a sniffle on my sleeve. 

While she shined the little ceramic portraits of her mother, father and brother with her hanky, she'd admonish me out of dad's earshot, "Don't cry," even though I'd see teardrops dribbling down her own cheeks when she leaned over to kiss my Nonna's picture.  "Daddy likes to follow this ritual out of respect, but if you honor people when they're alive, buy them flowers when they can smell them, you don't need to waste time on your knees at a gravesite.  Besides, "she'd add, "they're in your heart. There's nothing here."

Ever the pragmatist, she seized learning moments as we tip-toed through the tombstones.  "Brush up on your math," she'd say, "subtract their birth dates from the date they died.  Do you see that Nonno died in 1918--he died in the Great Flu Epidemic.  Look it up when we get home."  So I wasn't surprised when she chose a very non-traditional, but ever so practical, exit strategy.

Her decision to be cremated shocked those who needed to know--they'd be deprived of the sacred tradition of trooping to Mt. Carmel on every freaking holiday with a sprinkling can--but she blew off the criticism.

There were no more available plots at the family grave-site where my father was buried, and she wanted to be with him--moving him was out of the question, too macabre and expensive. She opted for cremation, and her urn would be entombed over his coffin. I wonder if the fact that she'd be on top factored into her decision. I imagine my Dad was conflicted when St. Peter apprised him of the fact that she'd be sharing his space--happy to have her near-by, not so happy with her superior position, but for once, he couldn't say a damn thing.  

He had been gone for over a decade when her health started to decline.  One day she announced that she was moving out of state to live with my sister.  You've been my angel for the last decade, she said, now it's your sister's turn.  A year later she passed away.

My sister saw to the viewing and the actual cremation--thank God for that. Had that piece been entrusted to my distracted self she might still be waiting for her little gold-domed repository.

Anyway, my brother picked her up from my sister's, and delivered her to me for her final journey to Section H, Block 12, Lot 115.

It was at this point in my reverie that it occurred to me that my mother would have been incensed had I wasted my time with Rosie on her cemetery jaunt because she's not there.  I don't mean in the existential sense--my mother really is not there.

She is still in my curio cabinet.   

I'm sure she is ambivalent about her predicament.  On the one hand, she is in a lovely living room decorated in a style very similar to her own with lots of company and laughter in the house. On the other hand, I, her hard-headed daughter, did not follow her instructions.

But on second thought I realized that if my mom were here to record a new tape she'd say, "Don't worry about the cemetery thing.  You brought me flowers when I could smell them.  Get on with your writing.  I told you where I'd be."


Laura said...

Wonderful Story!

Mary Trigiani said...

Enjoyed this, Mary Lou. I like your mother's approach. And the way in which you shared it.