I’ve been away again. This was my third trip since summer began, with one more to come next week. It’s been hard to keep a working rhythm with all the coming and going, but I’m making some progress. I wish it could be more. I always wish it could be more.
Mostly this last trip was about facing my parents’ reality now. My mom turned 75 in May. My dad is a year older. They get around remarkably well, but the years are catching up to them. I’m obsessed with the passage of time anyway, but now I feel like the hours we spend together are precious. In my dad’s case, since his first catastrophic heart attack at my current age, the hours are stolen. Thank goodness for modern medicine.
Last week my parents treated my daughter and me to two plays at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. First we saw Alice in Wonderland, a new adaptation of the familiar story that focused on Dodgson’s fantasy as a metaphor for growing up. The costumes were amazing. The stagecraft was impressive, what with all the growing smaller and bigger, but the enormous projection of Alice’s face destroyed the illusion of the actress’s youth. That said, I wouldn’t want my face blown up 20 feet high, either. At least I’m not cast as a 10-year-old.
The following day we saw Our Town. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the whole play, but the third act — in the graveyard overlooking town — was breathtaking. The dead sat motionless in ladderback chairs, their clothing spattered with white as if the color was leaching out of them.
True to form, I cried at the wedding and not at the funeral, but only because the dialog between the bride and her father was too much like what my father said to me when I got cold feet.
The final day in Canada, I got up at the crack of dawn and borrowed my parents’ SUV to drive half an hour into town to see St. Mark’s Churchyard. I’ve visited graveyards at sunset and after dark, in rainstorms and with snow on the ground, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been in one at 7 AM before. The old trees cast black shadows, so the light was tricky, but I saw a lot of beautiful, thought-provoking things.
After some poking around, I located a grave slab all gouged with chopping marks that bit away at its surface. The guidebook I’d picked up in the Old Niagara Bookshop theorized that it had been used to chop meat during the War of 1812, when the Americans occupied the area and used the church as a barracks.
While I wandered, I was startled to see someone else in the graveyard at this early hour. She was between my age and my mother’s, dressed in a light blue t-shirt. I wondered what she was doing up at this hour, why she was alone. I offered her a smile, then turned away to give her privacy.
Instead, she came toward me. We exchanged good mornings. “Are you looking for interesting gravestones?” she asked.
I told her I was.
“Did you see the one with all the notches cut out of it?”
I repeated what the guidebook said.
“I was told it had been used for amputations during the War.”
Goosebumps crawled over me. That theory made more sense, since the stone slab wasn’t knee height off the ground. It would be low to chop meat on, even it you were sitting on the ground. But it you were trying to get leverage to remove a limb…
Rubbing my bare arms against the sudden chill, I thanked her and showed her my guidebook. She said she would look for it and drifted away.
The next time I looked up, she’d vanished. It seemed that she had come into the churchyard solely to tell me that ghastly story.
By 8 AM, my phone refused to take another photo. I gave up and drove back out to where my family was staying. We got on the road before 9, on our 4-1/2-hour drive back to the farm in Michigan where I grew up.
Two days later, my daughter and I waited at the airport to start a two-legged flight home. She’s nearly 13, oscillating between cuddly little girl and disdainful teenager. I feel the clock ticking as I try to peel my protective arms from around her and let the world lure her away.
If studying graveyards has taught me anything, it’s how little time we have together: mothers and children, lovers and friends. All the more reason to love each other while we can, share the wonders we can find, and treasure the moments whipping past.