June 12, 2022 – Niles, MI
I am delighted to have an essay included in this exciting new book! To view the Kickstarter page, please click here.
Death’s Garden Revisited Relationships with Cemeteries is an anthology of personal essays about how the authors connect with cemeteries and graveyards.
Editor Loren Rhoads is the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. She’s blogged about cemeteries as travel destinations since 2011 at CemeteryTravel.com. She’s also written about cemeteries for Legacy.com, the Daily Beast, Gothic.Net, Gothic Beauty, Mental Floss, the Cemetery Club, the Horror Writers Association, and so much more. She’s been a member of the Association for Gravestone Studies for more than 20 years.
Cemetery writers/Genealogists/Historians: Anne Born, Barbara Baird, Carrie Sessarego, Carole Tyrrell, Erika Mailman, J’aime Rubio, Jo Nell Huff, Joanne M. Austin, Rachelle Meilleur, Sharon Pajka, Trilby Plants
Horror authors: A. M. Muffaz, Angela Yuriko Smith, Christine Sutton, Denise N. Tapscott, E. M. Markoff, Emerian Rich, Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito, Francesca Maria, Greg Roensch, Mary Rajotte, Melodie Bolt, Priscilla Bettis, Rena Mason, Robert Holt, R. L. Merrill, Saraliza Anzaldua, Stephen Mark Rainey, and Trish Wilson.
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A few years ago, I do not want to remember the exact date, the local church authorities decided it was time for a change at our home church. It was part of a system of changes where some congregations were left homeless and others were forced to share each other’s company the way telephone party lines brought strangers together in the 1960s. It was wrenching.
We’d come to think of this church as our spiritual home even though I doubt I would have put it that way at the time. We took everything for granted. We wanted the similar, the familiar, the reliable, the expected. That’s what churches give you. You always know what to expect, and that is comforting the same way it’s comforting to know all the words to Hey Jude. You just know how it ends and you can suspend the craziness and the upheaval of everyday life in New York for a minute because you can predict the future.
I would guess the priests knew something was coming. I would guess, at first, they expected the church authorities would take their sense of an inclusive, caring community into account when deciding what was going to happen next. But I was blindsided. The new administrator was a priest foreign to everything I had known from the Church over decades of going to Mass.
He was abrupt. He was rude. He made fun of people in the congregation. He’d ask at the end of Mass, “Is anyone here for the first time?” and when anyone would say, “Yes, I’m here from Buffalo or Denver or Houston,” he’d crack a joke about how they were now better off here than wherever they had said they were from. He said we were all welcome by naming the ways other people divide us: gay, straight, divorced, married, single. We had come into the church like tiny lit votives, all the same, all together, and suddenly we were a member of a group that is not like another group. We’d been set off and away from each other by our category.
And he intruded on the sacred space of the other priests. During the Mass of another priest, he would come onto the altar, interrupt the service, without vestments, and recount what we could all read in the church bulletin. All the while, the priest who had been saying Mass was relegated to sitting quietly, subserviently, until he was finished with the bulletin and the stand-up routine that followed. “Who’s here for the first time?” “Oh, now you’ve truly been saved!” Yuck, yuck, yuck.
I became an itinerant Catholic. I followed the former pastor downtown to his new parish and saw him a handful of times. And I went to two other churches to catch up with another one of the priests, but the routine and the comfort were gone.
Until last week.
This new priest abruptly retired and was then summarily removed from his ministry by the same church authorities who placed him in my church in the first place. I was stunned. We all were stunned. At Mass there this morning, a woman was in tears and the head of the parish council mentioned there would be a service of prayer on Tuesday. They even remembered this priest during the prayers on the altar. “Change is difficult” was the clear message. There had been serious allegations of his abusing authority.
Immediately, I wanted to be able to go back to the church I had left. I’m sure the parishioners at Notre Dame in Paris want nothing more than to do that as well. And while I can hardly compare handling the imposition of an unsympathetic priest to the fire that claimed the roof in Paris, it’s that routine I associate with the former pastor that I grieve.
I sat there for a few minutes after Mass this morning, trying to fill in the blanks. How was I really feeling, could I find my way back to this church after having left it, did I still need a church home, or was my itinerant Mass-going sufficient? I don’t know.
It’s going to take a while to find the answers. But isn’t that what a church is supposed to do?
The easy part of my story about my dad is that I miss him. I miss having breakfast with him where the waitresses always knew the kind of mug he liked for his coffee. I miss taking him with me to visit family cemeteries and the historical society in the county in Indiana where his dad grew up. He showed me the storefront that used to house my great grandfather’s blacksmith shop. And I could tell him all the stories I learned from doing family history research. None of that has any real substance though, as easy as the stories are to tell.
When my father died, I found myself suddenly placed in the position of being the one making the “arrangements.” I wanted to lie down and feel sorry for myself but instead, I met with the funeral home, the priest, my family, our neighbors, even my sister’s former classmates and friends who drove up to attend the wake and to see her. I think about those few days now and all I see is me talking. Nothing but talking.
Oh, and crying. I was worried I might become known as “that woman who comes to church, sits down, and cries to herself.” There was even one sweet member of the church choir who came over after the service and gave me a hug because she thought I looked like I could use a hug. Boy, did she get that right. Churches have been my sanctuary for a long while, but in this instance, during the days just before and just after my father’s death, I would walk in, sit down, and just cry.
Ironically, I really did want to get the funeral and burial just right and I can see now that I missed that mark by a long shot – but I know why now. At the time, I thought I was just acting without thinking.
The service was lovely, but I held up the drive from the church to the cemetery because I was talking to the organist and the singer about the years I had spent singing in the choir – as if a hearse, cars, family, and neighbors weren’t all waiting to leave.
That pales compared to my behavior at the cemetery. I had arranged for a burial with full military honors. My father was a sergeant in the Army Air Force in WWII and was stationed on Iwo Jima. It was appropriate. When we turned the corner off the highway into the graveyard, I could see the honor guard waiting for us. The local American Legion post sent two uniformed soldiers, and a chaplain who was accompanied by a bugler and a row of Armed Services veterans who stood at attention while the prayers were said and the flag that had draped my father’s coffin was folded.
I have no experience with military funerals. I sat, listened to Taps, heard the 21-gun salute, and watched while the two young men prepared the flag as if every crease, every fold had immortal significance. Then, one of the men came over to me, knelt on one knee and looked me in the eyes, saying that the flag was presented to me on behalf of the President of the United States. I held it close, passed it to each of my four children so they could hold it for a moment as well.
And then I gave it back to him, saying, “You know, I’m moving and I really don’t have the space for it, you know.”
My cousins were aghast; my neighbor came over to me. They must have thought I had lost my mind. No, I told them, I’m downsizing and I’d just hate for it to end up in a closet, you know.
My dear sweet Lord, what was I thinking?
Later that day, my son said he’d like to have his “But what was I thinking? How did I get it all so very wrong in that moment? See, my dad would have already told me what to do with his flag – but he was gone.
In retrospect, where all my great realizations suddenly come into focus, I know that while I was grieving the loss of my dad, I was also grieving the loss of my own childhood. I’m old enough for Social Security now, but my childhood was suddenly wrenched from me when my father died. My being a child – even up to now – relied on his being there for me.
If I did something fun or wonderful, I wanted to tell him – the same way it was when I was small and living at home. If I did well in school, which wasn’t all that often, I wanted my dad to know. We would share favorite TV shows, talk about cars and radios, eat bowls of cottage cheese and small bits of liver sausage on Wheat Thins with some cheddar, all washed down with ice cold root beer – and I could tell him all about everything. We would sit on the front stoop at night and listen to what my mother called the “night noises,” most times not even saying a word.
That gap is what grief is all about. It’s why people call it a “loss.” You lose so much and it happens so suddenly even if the actual passing is expected or anticipated. But in time, I think you can gain so much, too. When my dad could be on the other end of a phone call, I could rely on the one person who had always been there for me. There was a knight in a corner of my chessboard, waiting to move if I needed him to protect me. It’s just my turn now to be that knight.
I am fortunate that I did have my dad in my life for as long as I did. I am fortunate as well that our relationship was one of shared time and interests – and such love.
You hear people say, when their parents die early in their lives, that mom or dad would be proud of the adult they’ve become. I’ve only been an adult for a short while, but I think when I really get the hang of it, I’ll be good at it too.
Like my dad.
Excerpt from “These Winter Months,” edited by Anne Born
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I am reminded of this story today in light of the devastating fire at my church.
In 2007, I took my daughter, my friend, and my cousin on a weeklong trip to Paris. We rented an atelier in the 6th, we shopped, we ate, we toured museums, and we even bought tickets on a bateau mouche for a nighttime tour of the Seine to see all the important monuments lit up. I had a fabulous time because I adore Paris in a way I have never felt about a place where I lived. I cherish my home town in Michigan, I delight in Chicago, I feel comfortable living in New York, and I am constantly challenged by Madrid, but I adore Paris. It holds my heart.
It was on this trip in 2007 that I finally fell in love with what is arguably the heart of Paris: the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In one of my Columbia University art history seminars, we studied medieval Paris and how this huge building went up. I learned how it replaced earlier churches, how it influenced other buildings, and how it helped to establish “Gothic.” I read Victor Hugo and learned how he felt about the atrocities of the French Revolution mobs that decapitated the sculpted figures of the biblical kings that spread out along the façade, thinking they were depicting the French aristocracy.
But through all this study, learning about all this conflict and chaos, I could not find my way around this building so that it would start to feel like anything but a bus station. To me, it was a tourist trap of the worst kind. I resented standing in line to get in, I hated the way nobody looked up at these wounded and restored sculptures on their way in, and I thought the machines that spat out gold coins with the image of the church were crass and out of place in what should have been a more solemn house of worship.
This particular trip in 2007 was a photo tour, though.
I had a new point-and-shoot camera and I pointed and shot everything that came into my view finder. I thought maybe if I could focus on detail and not the whole experience of Notre Dame, I might find the essence of history that I was missing. So I sat down in front of the building, on one of those stone slabs about 100 feet from the front doors, and I started taking pictures. I zoomed in on faces and objects in a way I hadn’t before, figuring, in the worst case scenario, I might get a nice screensaver out of it. I walked up to the façade and took close ups of the doorways and the small stone sculptures that were so important to the first visitors in the year 1250 and are nearly incomprehensible to most tourists now. And even though I know that most of this sculpted façade dates from the mid-19th century renovation and not the 13th century, I started to make the connection.
Our trip was nearly over when my daughter told me she would volunteer to get up just before dawn with me so I could take pictures of Notre Dame before daylight, when maybe all the tourists would still be in bed. I was really touched. We set an alarm, hailed a cab, and found ourselves standing on the opposite side of the plaza in the dark and, once the cab left, we were completely alone. There were no tourists or school groups. There were no hordes of confused- looking “If this is Tuesday, this must be Paris” bus people. It was just us and the sky was not yet ready for daylight.
We made our way across the empty plaza where we found a middle-aged man in a porter’s uniform, smoking a cigarette just outside the door on the right where most people enter Notre Dame when it is open. We walked up to him and started to make some small talk about the weather and how different everything looked at this hour compared to later in the day. We were just two American tourists and this was his break in the routine that would prepare the Cathedral for the first Mass at 7:00 a.m.
And then he asked us in.
We smiled and he just opened the door and we walked inside. Unlike any other time of day, the Cathedral was empty; cavernous and empty. All the way up the center aisle, there was someone carpet-sweeping the floor around the altar. The lights over the altar were lit, but the rest of the nave was dark. And it was in that instant that a thousand years of history came swirling around us. I felt the thrill of King Louis IX as he approached the altar in 1249, walking barefoot, carrying his latest treasure: the Crown of Thorns. I felt the arrogance of Napoleon in 1804, surrounded by minions and sycophants, as he snatched the emperor’s crown for himself. I suddenly understood why Hugo wanted so desperately to defend this church and why Viollet-le-Duc took such care in saving it. Even though the room was silent, I could hear Gregorian Chant hanging softly in the air above the heads of countless medieval pilgrims.
We walked out into the clear morning air and the porter took our picture sitting in two empty sculpture niches outside. We looked like two American tourists on our way back to the bus, but, in fact, we were two New Yorkers, too stunned to speak, wanting to savor the moment we had spent in this Cathedral all by ourselves, lost in the crowd of history.
We were only inside for a few minutes. It never even occurred to me to take out my camera.
If you would like to read more of my stories, please consider “Prayer Beads on the Train.”
This is an excerpt from that book.
I needed to cook bacon for dinner last night. Not because its best-before date was up. Not because I didn’t have anything else. But when I knew I wanted eggs, I knew I needed bacon. Bacon and me, we go way back. It’s possibly the first thing I learned to recognize by smell. That, and Folger’s coffee.
Every weekday of my life as a child, my mother made bacon and an egg, white toast and coffee – for my dad. We had cereal sometimes, toast most days, but my dad, he loved bacon and an egg. And I am sure it was because of the way my mother made them.
Strips of bacon laid flat barely touching in a copper bottom, Revere Were pan. Cooked low and even, turned a few times, bacon comes out, egg goes in, smack in the middle of the grease left behind by the bacon. Spatula flicking hot grease over the top of the egg to cook it while the bottom of the egg cooked on the inside of the pan. Then slide out onto the plate like a short order cook – the one thing my mother always swore she was not. “What do you think, I’m a short order cook? Eat what’s in front of you.” And most days we did.
After I was labeled “gifted” in Grade Five, I skipped, and was unceremoniously assigned to Grade Seven without the inconvenience of showing up for a Grade Six. Over the summer after Grade Five, I was assigned to the care, and ultimately feeding, of the nun who taught grade six during the school year, a powerhouse named Mother Josetta. When we both tired of my Math and English lessons, she taught me how to do things – like fry an egg. I remember watching her flick grease just like my mother did. I could see a wonderful, unspoken camaraderie come alive: with eggs, with nuns, with my mother, with women in the universe throughout history, if we could all execute the same flick, if we all knew how to fry eggs. I did not get a sense of a greater purpose in this exercise, but rather I could visualize an invisible silken thread drawing us all together.
I believe that was the first and last time I used bacon grease to fry an egg. That’s the way it is sometimes with life’s profound moments. They stand on their own. They influence thought, but not action. And it wasn’t that my mother hadn’t taught me many cooking skills, but this nun with her methodical bacon and egg protocol is what I remember. She must have felt sorry for me. A tall misfit chubby girl with glasses not finding her way in a sea of normal little girls and boys in this small Midwest Catholic school. I don’t think I ever confided in her later that the kids in my new Grade Seven were suspicious of me and kept their distance, and the kids in my old Grade Five instantly forgot my name as they attended that inconvenient Grade Six, barely recognizing my absence. There had been talk about sending me away to a school in Indiana known for the way it worked with gifted kids, but the cost of tuition was a deal breaker. It’s impossible to know now if that move really did stop at tuition or if my family decided it was just easier to keep me where I was. I’ll never know.
Still, the smell of bacon cooking or the sound of an egg breaking into a hot pan, the smell of fresh Folger’s – these all take me back to a clean dinette set with four place settings of 1950s, burnt orange Melmac plates in Michigan. Four chairs, four people eating breakfast together and my mother always wondering existentially; if the coffee was good to the last drop, what was wrong with the last drop?
Now, in my all-grown-up studio in the Bronx, I am able to fill the space with the foods of my childhood and a memory of the people and places that still carry meaning. It might be time to try frying an egg in bacon grease again – just to see if I could get it right and not burn myself. I’d like to please Mother Josetta now – and my own mother too, even though I’m way past needing to do that and they are both gone. I think it would be fitting to let them both know their lessons are as fresh to me now as the day they first presented them to me. And as useful.
Like all the women in history, I can fry an egg.
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My notebook no longer contains…
My notebook comes along with me when I leave my house,
you never know when elusive inspiration will be found lurking
around the corner, down the block, over your shoulder.
When it will be better to write than to grieve or to laugh.
But now, my notebook doesn’t carry any of the thoughts I want to write
It holds the receipts, the holy cards, the phone numbers, bills for the car or the hotel.
The tiny note cards from the flowers.
Not one word can I write,
not one thought with any level of clarity
I know there is usual healing in words,
salve in poetry for the open wound
Or in some short narrative, a remembrance;
but it’s just not there.
Instead of being reminded that I am a writer –
by opening to a blank page,
Instead of being reminded that I take words at face value
to spin my stories, to tell my sorrows,
joys, memories –
I see only the shards, the detritus of my loss
and words simply pull farther and farther away.
My notebook no longer contains
Stories of today or plans for tomorrow.
That all stopped on Saturday.
While I know this is as temporary as a life,
It is just as maddening.
If you’d like to read the Late Orphan stories, look at My Books for These Winter Months and These Summer Months.
Today, I am putting on my travel coach hat. This is where I hear your lament – “I have always wanted to go there!” – and I turn it into, “I am so glad I went there.”
Eiffel Tower? You can go to Paris, you know. How about a soccer game, opera performance, art exhibition, concert? How many times do you have to miss something because you just can’t figure out how to get there and back without breaking the bank?
I call it it a “Bugout.”
I was working at Columbia University many years ago in the Department of International and Public Affairs. The woman whose office was just next door to mine was a professor in the department and her husband taught in the Business School. They were very comfortable, financially speaking, and took some nice trips. But it was one trip in particular that made me re-think bugout travel. They went to Barcelona for the weekend. They left on Thursday night, and came back the following Tuesday.
I was stunned. They were not super rich first class, jet set travelers, they were just a husband and wife wanting to go to the museums in Barcelona for a few days. My conversation with her went something like this: “How did you, where are you, when did…” I never considered a trip like this. I always figured you had to have ten days, two weeks. I have a friend now who is going to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco – but for three weeks of traveling.
So, what did I learn? Other than you can go someplace far and get back in just a few days? I learned that bravery was necessary. That timing was critical to a successful bugout. That planning was essential. But that all in all, it was completely doable.
First consideration: the best long distance bugouts involve nonstop, direct flights to your destination. If you want to go to Barcelona, don’t fly in and out of Madrid. You run the risk of missing a connection when time is of the essence. This means you can go best when you can get to your destination in one flight.
Next – plan to take next to nothing with you. This will reinforce the bugout nature of the trip and ensure you get in and out of airports with the least number of events. Meaning, don’t check a bag you have to retrieve, run the risk of losing, have to drag around. Get just what you need into a carry-on.
Then, get tickets to the place and to your thing. I bugged out a few years ago to Miami to see a ballet company perform that was not going to be in New York that season. I remember calling my daughter when she lived in Madrid to see if she wanted to go to Lisbon for the weekend. I bought the tickets on Wednesday and was on the plane Thursday night. We spent Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Portugal visiting Lisbon and Sintra. She went back to Madrid, I went back to New York. We did the same thing for Barcelona. And just this past June, I went to Italy for a long weekend to see the Palio in Siena.
Bottom line – life is so short. If you can just get out to the airport, get out and go. Maybe it’s just to North Dakota because you’ve never been there. Or DC because you want to protest in front of the White House. Get maps, get guidebooks, get online and get your tickets.
If you’d like to read more travel tips, try “Buen Camino!” Paperback and Kindle.