Not Crazy About Halloween But I Am Mad for Cemeteries

IMG_0051Halloween does not thrill me beyond a smiling Jack-O-Lantern and a Butterfinger. The Shining still gives me nightmares after 30 years and my heart aches with empathy at the sound of Charlie Brown saying “I got a rock.” If I never see or hear of another zombie or vampire again it will be just fine with me. But I love cemeteries and I visit them all the time.

Growing up, we used to go to the  cemetery with our Dad to visit the family plot. A beautiful spot overlooking the Cedar River, Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Falls, Iowa, hasn’t even a whiff of Halloween spookiness to it, at least not for me. It is twentieth century tidy: groomed, pretty linear with elegant but largely unremarkable gravestones, and those fabulous old growth trees that are probably the real reason I love all cemeteries so much. The trees stand like guardian angels. Under their branches is a sanctuary for the living among the dead.

So today is Halloween and earlier this week a blanket of fog curled around our old New England cemetery and this one is made to order for All Hallows Eve. Thus, I am compelled to chronicle my early morning walk among the long departed.

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The morning sun, masquerading as a rising moon, kisses the tops of an 18th century family plot. When I see stones like this so identical and lines up so perfectly I always wonder who designed it and whether they ordered them made all at once. My great grandfather was an undertaker back in Newton, Iowa, but I am woefully uneducated about cemetery protocol. I see research in my future.

IMG_0100This family’s plot didn’t account for nearby trees upsetting their row of markers – not only are they out of line, one grave has only the base left. And this causes me to think that, in the digital age, for some people it’s entirely possible that markers such as these might be the only tangible thing we leave behind.

IMG_0072And then I look up and see that this baby, gone for over 100 years now, is no known to me because I walked by on this day. I am always touched by the nameless children who are so lovingly remembered by their families. Some people – okay, a lot of people – think it’s morbid to visit and speculate in this way but I am intrigued comforted by the directness with which previous generations faced and commemorated death. These days it seems like people will do anything to avoid acknowledging the inevitable. I am grateful for the people in my life – yes, Irish – who are unflinching and (sometimes) celebratory in facing death. I don’t always share the revelry but I deeply appreciate the sentiment and faith that unpin it.

IMG_0118Above, conjoined on the left if you can see it, is something you don’t encounter as often in more modern cemeteries: the roles take precedence over the names. We know that mother and father rest here, but their given names are long obscured by time and weather. It’s also often true that the flags of soldiers are affixed to the telltale star-shaped holders but the names are no longer legible: all we know is that they served.

IMG_0109And then there are the various lines of demarcation between family plots. Chains certainly send an interesting message from the hereafter; there will be no fraternizing with others ghosts for these folks. I would love to eavesdrop on the conversations and circumstances that led to the placement of these chains. There’s a story here for sure.

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I always mean to look up the science behind the stone itself – why is it that Martha Pierce’s 1848 stone is so legible while others that are centuries newer have been wiped clean by the elements? I love everything about this – the color, the use of type, the spacing, even the weathering, it’s all perfect.

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Space is at a premium in the oldest cemeteries (though this town has one that is even older than this, aptly named The Old Burying Ground), and some folks bought space near the storage house. It all adds to the charm, and probably the politics, too.

IMG_0080Finally, there are the colors – the leaves and mosses and vines – and how they complement and define the incredible shapes that show the styles and workmanship of centuries. Modern public spaces value uniformity but history is random and people are finicky even in death (or maybe especially in death). They had one more chance to make their mark, and most of them made it count.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur parents are buried in a National Cemetery in the Midwest and when I visit, the rows of white stones take my breath away with their undulating precision. But then, for a moment, I’m not sure I’m even in the right section and we are lost to each other until I can make their names out and know that I am in the right place after all. There is comfort in knowing their engravings won’t be wiped away and that the whole area will be well-tended, but it makes me all the more determined to remember them in other ways. I am reminded as I look through the photographs that “mother” and “grandmother” are engraved under Mom’s name – I had forgotten that.

I am too far away to make the weekly pilgrimages my father made to his family and I wish now I knew what he was thinking on those days when we looked down at the river, but I know that even though I am walking among strangers, they are both with me (and laughing).

 

The Man in the Blue Oxford Shirt

CMV with Annie 1993 2

A Remembrance of Charles M. Vest,  former President of MIT

When I think of his memorial service at MIT planned for later this week, it is hard not to envision Chuck Vest himself coming up to he podium, looking around at what is sure to be an impressive gathering, and saying, “Well, hello there!” Legions of others will have better stories of the man in the ubiquitous blue oxford shirt, and I look forward to hearing all of them. All I can say is that these moments are uniquely mine, and they’re dear to me because of both who he was and the singular place he occupies in my life.

I was fortunate to be designated as Chuck’s transition assistant in 1990 and there were moments when we shared a kind of bewildered joy to be there, tucked away in Building 14, with a meeting schedule that could have passed for a list of the greatest minds of the 20th century. I don’t think he ever stopped being tickled to find himself among people he admired. Chuck and I developed a kind of rapport that summer; he would call me Radar for my ability to anticipate what he needed (and my propensity to blurt out an unsolicited opinion at the exact wrong time). But when he announced that everyone needed an e-mail username and address (it was that long ago) and I chose a contraction of my name – Scamp – that was the nickname that stuck over the years.

We have ways of creating stand-ins among the living for those who are with us only in spirit. There comes a point, inevitably, when our parents die and we find ourselves feeling a specific kind of aloneness. When my mother was dying, she had all kinds of crazy wisdom for me, and my favorite was, “You’re turning 40, and we’ll be gone. I never really felt grown up until both of my parents were dead. Your life is your own now; you won’t have me looking over your shoulder. It will be liberating.” I get what she was saying, and, liberated or not, she left me reams of advice that sit in a binder on my shelf.

But with my Dad it was trickier. His illness was shorter than Mom’s, and he was much more reticent to create any sense of closure. On matters of the heart, Mom did all the talking. Dad and I had said goodbye without my realizing it was the last one; I am certain he knew. Several weeks earlier he’d phoned me at MIT – the first and only time Dad called me at work. I happened to be in Chuck’s office that day – I was filling in for Laura for a few weeks while she was away. The call had followed me down the corridor from ASPG.  I rushed to the outer office, my face flushed with embarrassment and concern, and took the call in which my father informed me that he was sending me plane ticket so I could go home for a birthday party he was planning for my mother (another first and only). I had told him before that I was too busy to come; it was a crazy summer. But I was summoned and I went.

At first glance my father and Chuck could not have appeared more different, but they shared some characteristics: a firm handshake, a low voice that was seldom raised, a quiet devotion to family and faith, a way of chuckling through a funny story, a gallows sense of humor and a fondness for mixed nuts. They each had a kind of heartland sensibility that is largely undemonstrative; the hint of a smile or a furrowed brow spoke volumes.

So I flew out to Missouri for the party and had a wonderful time. Dad spent an afternoon at the head of the table, regaling the family with stories we had heard a million times before. When it came time for Dad to drive me to the airport, as he did every time I visited home, he told me that my brother-in-law would drive me instead. I should have known then. But instead I wrote it off to the fact that there were so many people visiting that weekend, Dad could not make all of those trips himself, and I blithely kissed and hugged him goodbye. Two weeks later I was flying back for the funeral. When Mom called to tell me he was ill, I asked if I should come home and she said “No, don’t come. It’s fine, you’ve had your turn.” And it was tough to take, but I guessed she was right.

TQM with CMV July 1992When I returned to Cambridge after the funeral it was the first day of a Total Quality Management Workshop for Constantine’s VP Staff Group. Shioji Shiba, the TQM guru, was there and it was a big deal. I was exhausted and as I stood in a daze during the pre-conference coffee, Chuck approached me, and wordlessly hugged me and kissed my forehead. And that was it. In one moment I got the goodbye I had missed from Dad and the hello that I needed to move forward. I went to the rest room and wept. Then I joined the group and promptly nodded off while Professor Shiba was talking (Yo-One!) and even though everyone around the table could see me, they let me snooze. We gathered for one of those team building group photos, and somebody directed me to a chair and I sat down. I was startled and delighted to find myself seated with Chuck, CBS and Professor Shiba; I’m not quite sure how that happened. We all look so happy, and in that moment, despite my loss, I truly was happy.

I understand much more clearly now the value of the sense of belonging I enjoyed at that time in my life. I look back and wince at my many rookie mistakes – CBS would refer it to it as “letting my slip show” – but I also miss the unbridled enthusiasm I had for nearly everything. I knew from the moment  I arrived in ASPG that that I was part of something extraordinary, but I didn’t grasp then how rare it is to work for and with people who share a common vision and have respect and admiration for each other, even under difficult circumstances. I worked hard and I was rewarded, which is such a simple concept but in these times it seems like something of a miracle.

Twenty-one years have passed. I left my job to stay home with my children, engaged in a new and challenging set of tasks but still working behind the scenes with and for people to whom I am devoted. The affirmations of parenting are both clearer and murkier – a child’s love is magic but you’re never really sure if you did a good job. No calls at the end of the day from CBS on the cell phone patting me on the back while he sped down the Mass Pike in his Volvo, no nod of bemused appreciation from Chuck at my fabulous color coding of the Faculty Meeting agenda. In my case the job has been more hands-on for a longer time; having a child with a disability presents a slew of joys and challenges, and there are no performance evaluations or raises – just a constantly changing job description (there are plenty of meetings, though, and lots of notes to take).

I look back on those days when I was out there in the working world, in that very brief moment where I was not so defined as a daughter or a mother, and feeling that I was in the right place at the right time with the right people. Those moments of synchrony (thank you, MLAM, for giving me that word) are as important to me as falling in love with husband and children. I feel a little nostalgic but mostly I feel incredibly, tremendously lucky.

A few years back, in the process of advocating for my child I got some press and sometime later I heard from Chuck. Over the years we kept tabs on each other, sending photos and occasional pithy e-mails (thanks to Laura, ever the catalyst). In one of those e-mail exchanges about family updates came a small moment – he told me he’d seen the piece in the Globe and that was proud of me. And because it was Chuck, whom I don’t think ever said anything he didn’t mean, it was the kind of validation I thought I had learned to live without.

I have a thin file folder that contains a few handwritten notes and short e-mails from Chuck that mean as much to me as anything I own, and I am grateful for the presence in my life that they represent. I am proud to be among the many people who enjoy the indelible imprint of Chuck Vest on our lives. I’m pretty sure I’m the only Scamp, though.

Revisionist Parenting

When I was nineteen I had a major crush on a boy I met at a summer job in Michigan. He was smart, sweet, earnest, funny and boyishly hadsome. We were inseparable for much of the summer but did not exchange so much as a kiss – it was fun; I thought it had potential. At the end of the summer we cooked up a plan to visit my family in Missouri before returning to our respective colleges. I knew my mother would like him, and she did. The feeling was mutual, I guess, because on the first evening at our house he said to me, ” When I met you I thought you were such a unique person, but now I realize that you are really just like your mother.”  I should have known at that moment that the romance was doomed; he entered the seminary the following year.

Fast forward twenty-seven years. My husband sits down in front of the family computer situated at the desk that I use, and looks at me and says, “Look at the way you have all of your notes and photos up on this wall and all of your papers here – you are your Mom.”   He is smiling – he loved my Mom. “I think you do it on purpose.”

Well, I didn’t; I don’t. I make rolls like she did on purpose, I speak truth to power like she did on purpose, I try to make my home welcoming like she did on purpose. But as my hair goes grayer and the questions from my children get thornier I find it maddening for it to be so hard to lift myself out of her ruts in my road – she did not overtly impose her ways on me and there are so many ways in which our paths greatly diverge.  I know we have faced the challenges on our lives in fundamentally different ways.   And yet, her influence is an incredibly strong default mechanism. It can make me frustrated, because in the years since her death I have begun to understand how she crafted the myth of herself by selectively sharing information with her children. But I also can empathize with why people do that – there are so many conversations that people will do anything to avoid. Parenthood doesn’t have a full disclosure clause, and the line between honesty and too much information is constantly shifting. When you share you risk two responses:  “Why did you tell me this?” and “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”  I have been through this with my own children over the most minor events already, and perhaps I do share too much.  One person’s enlightenment is another’s burden, one person’s honesty is another’s pain.  You never know.

I witnessed enough drama in my Mom’s life to know that, as her youngest, I missed plenty. I wasn’t very good at letting those moments I did know about fade; I have a penchant for rehashing events in hope of prying out more details, reasons, answers. I keep looking for a version of the truth that I can live with, knowing full well that my ability to live comfortably with any truth changes from day to day.  What is acceptable in one moment is decidedly lacking in the next.  Sixteen years ago, I spent weeks camped out in my living room with my Mom, quizzing her about her life while we waited for my overdue baby to arrive. We covered a lot of ground, but I noticed gaps in her memory that I attributed to advancing age. It doesn’t really matter what she kept to herself, it is that she made that choice – repeatedly – that caught me off guard as the details emerged in later years after her death. He legendary candor was not what I thought and some of the things and people she put faith in were, to my mind, not worthy of her devotion.  She didn’t owe me full disclosure, but some examples she tried to set have not entirely stood the test of time, either, because she obfuscated.

But these things are true of all parents, all families.  For when we tell a story we are telling our own version, and that, by design or not, means that anyone else who was there as there may or may not agree.  We have a large family – something as simple as a Thanksgiving Dinner in 1975 can come off as Rashomon on steroids.  And I know that, quite often, there are plenty of good reasons to let sleeping dogs lie.  And so I struggle to calibrate what memories are rightfully mine, what traits I truly own, how I can understand what it is to write honestly knowing that truth in memory is only our own version of the facts at a particular moment in time.

I will always love and admire my mother, and there are many ways that I am glad to be like her.  Still, even in the throes of middle age, it is difficult to know where she ends and I begin, and I am reminded of what she said in the weeks before her death.  “You’re going to be forty,” she said as she spoke of her terminal illness, “this is a good time for me to go.  It will be a liberating experience.  When your parents are gone you are truly free to make your own choices.  I never really felt like a grownup until both of my parents were gone.  It’s a good thing.”  Now, I think I know what she meant.

Today I Wasn’t There to Take Photographs

Fall 2008 video 123

Each season I visit this cemetery to record the quiet majesty of old stones and ancient trees.  Today I was there with friends to bury someone so stalwart it is impossible to imagine she has left us.  Next week we will have a new cemetery to visit and a beautiful young woman to comfort.  She lost her father in the space of a moment.  Maybe we all do.  It’s just a matter of which moment we realize it.

Who knew heaven was in South Dakota?

Leave it to Pixar to trigger anxiety. The visually stunning style and sparse dialogue of Up turns out to have had a profound impact on my visual learner – to the point that Carl and his Ellie have turned into a giant metaphor for loss and death that has Our Boy covering every calendar in sight in hopes that he can stop the march of time. He keeps trying to delete the calendar off of my iPod and insists that there must be a way for us to get back to 2001 – if asked why he chooses to go back to that specific year he will not answer. I am trying to avoid putting my own spin on that one. Any four digit number prompts the query “is that a year?” in hopes that he can somehow manipulate the calendar to suit his needs. He expresses it quite frankly: “I do not want to grow up and die and go to heaven; I do not want all of the people dead and for the dinosaurs to take over the world.” Apparently there’s a little Jurassic Park creeping in there, too.

As luck (don’t ask which kind) would have it we had a visit with a psychiatrist scheduled – not for this purpose but to help us better define the line between adolescence and autism – you’d be surprised how fuzzy that one is. Still, based on the usual performance at appointments of any kind, I did not have high hopes for this one; standard operating procedure for any doctor visit is laying down and going to sleep. This is Our Boy’s response to stress and you have to give him credit – it works. He has fallen into a dead sleep at Fenway Park and at any number of action movies. Total system shutdown.

But this time it turned out to be different. In preparation for the visit I told him that this doctor might be able to help him with what he calls his “worried heart.” The tale of Ellie and Carl had resurrected, so to speak, Our Boy’s own experiences with death, specifically the loss of both his own grandmothers and a neighborhood family that lost its grandmother two summers ago. Nana was a matriarch, a fixture at neighborhood parties with acerbic wit and a Tanqueray martini. She had a gravelly voice and a vast array of opinions; she taught her grandchildren to cook and play poker. Her late husband shared a name with Our Boy and thus she always and a soft spot for him and spoke very kindly to him, but she was memorable by any standards, particularly since his own grandmothers had lived far away and been less a part of day to day life.

Clearly, the prospect of understanding death and possible time travel made this an appointment worth staying awake for. Dr. J turned out be a lovely person with an easy way of speaking to children with communication issues – no big surprise since she is at the top of her field by any standards, but I had been disappointed by people touted as experts before. Autism is a great equalizer in that regard – people who are accustomed to impressing impressionable people who measure success by counting the degrees on their walls carry no weight with the autistic unless, maybe, they can also operate a steam engine or recite prime numbers to 23 places.

But Dr. J got Our Boy to talk about his worries about “becoming a skeleton” and going to heaven (so far we have completely avoided hell and purgatory). She got him to admit that heaven might not be a bad place, and asked him to draw a picture of it. I wish I had asked for a copy but I will try to describe it. He drew two wavy lines at the top and bottom of the page (“clouds”) and three stick figures who had heart-shaped torsos with wings sprouting from them. The circular heads had halos and smiling faces, and the center figure was slightly above the other two. “It’s Nana and the two grandmothers!” I thought.

Dr. J pointed to the center angel, “Who’s this?”

“My neighbor Nana.” She pointed to the second figure and peered over her glasses at him but said nothing.

“That’s Teddy Roosevelt” he piped up, as if there could be no other answer. I started to speak but squelched it.

She tapped the third angel “And this one?”

“Abraham Lincoln! They are all in heaven together? I will meet them all in heaven?” Many of his declarations come in the form of questions.

Turns out that to Our Boy, heaven is a lot like Mount Rushmore. Which explains why I am always finding images of that monument on my iPod.

It’s an exercise in forensic media and life exposure: this is what happens when the autistic mind mixes the following ingredients: a younger brother who is always reading books about presidents, endless viewings of Night at the Museum movies, a 2005 visit to the Museum of Natural History, National Treasure Book of Secrets, Jurassic Park, an election year (lots of shots of the Lincoln Memorial on TV), Up, and multiple experiences with death.

So, I wonder what would happen if we were to thrown in North by Northwest and Field of Dreams?

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