The custom of remembering the dead during November as the leaves turn and the light fades, continues to resonate from my Catholic background. To observe this time of year, my husband and I like to recollect our personal saints through a pilgrimage to local cemeteries where our relatives are buried, a tradition that began with a powerful cemetery moment while we were engaged.
My mother had died of breast cancer when I was seven years old and on an early November Sunday 20 years later, I felt an urge to visit her grave though I’d never done so before. Joe and I drove out to the suburban cemetery not knowing the grave location but foolishly confident that we’d find it. We enjoyed a lovely walk over even grassy terrain, encountered many familiar names on the flat stone markers, and intuitively grasped the “communion of saints” that embraced us.
But admitting defeat on our quest, we rounded the last corner of the section we had been searching to head back to the car. Then suddenly, her name was in my face as though the words on the marker had leapt into the air. Not 10 feet from where we had parked, but in the opposite direction from which we started, was my mom’s grave. The stone sits on a very slight, almost imperceptible incline that was just enough to distinguish it. It seemed like my mom’s way of reaching out to me across the years. Joe and I could hardly breathe due to laughing and crying at the same time as we stood there, hugging.
Now 20 more years have passed, and I appreciate the ongoing impact of that single instant. Throughout our marriage, that “great cloud of witnesses” has been so present to us, especially in cemeteries. Such November excursions became a family event for several years when our children were younger. Sometimes we’d bring crayons and paper and make rubbings. Destinations can vary. We might head to the west side of town to visit Joe’s dad’s relatives. Or we both have extended family at St. Mary’s Cemetery, located more centrally, my mother’s parents and grandparents, as well as Joe’s maternal great-grandparents.
Joe’s maternal grandparents are buried in our favorite cemetery, Spring Grove, not far from St. Mary’s. An arboretum as well, it’s very stately with lots of monuments, mature trees and several ponds. A plaque on a rock at one intersection lists the names of soldiers from the American Revolution who are buried there, and they regularly offer tours of Civil War graves or other historical themes. I didn’t know this grandmother, so I like to hear Joe’s fond reminiscences.
Year by year, our litany of people to remember and visit has grown to encompass friends’ parents, more and more aunts and uncles and even a sibling, a spouse and children of various friends. Although no visit has ever equaled the first in dramatic impact, in the stillness of the cemetery, where time almost seems suspended, little is said but much is communicated between us and our departed loved ones.
Our newest saint is Joe’s mom, who died in late August and was buried in the plot beside her parents at Spring Grove. As we approached the grave site after her funeral, the slope and curve of the road and the nearby stand of evergreen trees felt so familiar that it truly seemed we had brought her home. Though it was very hard to say goodbye, we knew that we’d be back.
Copyright Peg Conway 2010