Alan Gurganis, in today’s NY Times, beat me to it, and, let’s face it, he is a polished, experienced, and brilliant writer who deserves to have had the first word on this timely topic.
Even before I read Gurganis’s column I had been thinking about all the Saturdays spent with one or more of my three younger siblings at my father’s side at the Northford Cemetery. First we went to the “New Cemetery”, with graves dating back to the mid-19th century. We clipped the grass and weeded and pruned the yew shrubs around the dark grey granite monument that marked the place where my paternal grandparents and great-grandparents had been laid to rest. If the plants needed water, we skipped along to the old pump with a bucket, and could usually get the water flowing after a few hefty pulls and pushes on the handle. If Daddy was feeling particularly mellow and gracious, we also tidied up the adjacent plot of my great-aunt and her husband. The husband, being from New York, was always something of an outsider in our family, regarded as a “smooth operator” by my grandmother. I came to understand that this meant only that this great-uncle was more successful at making money than anyone in my immediate family! As a young girl, I held him in high regard for two important reasons: first, he always had a jar of candy on the table when we dutifully called on him and my great-aunt, and second, even though his right arm had been amputated above the elbow, he planted, worked and harvested a huge and prolific vegetable garden. To me, he was an heroic figure.
After our work in the New Cemetery was completed to my father’s satisfaction, we crossed the road and slipped through the gap in the tumbling-down stone wall that surrounded the Old Cemetery. Huge maple and chestnut trees with roots pushing up through the rocky soil shaded the graves and monuments. We carefully read the names and dates, many of them nearly undecipherable, on the old stones. My father filled in the bits and pieces of family history that he had learned from his mother and his grandparents. “The Linsleys”, he said, “didn’t always spell their name Linsley. Sometimes it was Lindsley, or Linsly. But they were all part of the same big family, and they married into the Maltbys, who sometimes spelled their name Maltbie.” Armed with this information, we walked carefully from row to row, squinting and holding our faces just inches from the old stones in the hopes of finding a Maltby or Linsley. We called out to one another across the graves, “here’s one!” and everyone would hurry to inspect the find.
When my father and mother died, they specified that their bodies be cremated and the ashes buried next to the grey granite family monument. Ever practical, theirs was the first generation to choose cremation. The way my father explained it, it was important to leave room for the rest of us should we choose to join them “when our time came”. Euphemisms for death were part of our vocabulary, even though we were happy and carefree denizens of the cemetery.
I’m positive my father had never heard of Dia de los Muertos, but on those bright October afternoons in the cemetery his demonstrated devotion to our forebears opened our minds and hearts to the possibility that those souls whose graves we discovered and tended could always be a benevolent presence in our lives.
When my father died November 3, 1986, my mother arranged for a “cemetery blanket” to be delivered to cover the very fresh grave. The blanket was a thick, fragrant mat woven tightly with balsam fir branches and pine cones, and decorated with clusters of red berries and a flocked red bow.
Although we surely knew better, the presence of the blanket gave my mother and the four of us children (all adults) great comfort as the Connecticut weather turned wintry. We imagined Daddy, tucked away all warm and toasty, sleeping six feet under.