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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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 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.
There’s a mourning dove near my window in the Bronx. She’s new. I hear her in the morning now, and at twilight sometimes.
I grew up listening to the soft grey birds near my parents’ house in Michigan. Over breakfast. The cooing, the pattern of cooing, that plaintive, slow soft grey cooing. The other birds set off on a frantic chatter, but the doves, they were the calmer voice of reason. A sultry mezzo countering the soprano chorus of ingenues.
There was another dove on the windowsill at work today in Queens. She let me watch her until my shadow forced her away. I’ve never seen one up so close before.
I tell you this and I know you’ll think, oh, listening to that sad sound from the visitors by her window now must remind her of home and lazy Michigan summers.
It’s not that at all. It’s that now I know: home must have been reminded of me.
Welcome to These Summer Months: Stories from The Late Orphan Project. The Backpack Press is proud to announce the writers whose work will be included in this second volume of stories. This volume will be available April 14, 2017 on Amazon, paperback and Kindle, and by special order at your favorite independent bookseller.
Mary Kay Fleming
Brian T. Silak
Margaret Van Every
If you would like more information on the Late Orphan Project, or the previous volume of stories, These Winter Months: The Late Orphan Project Anthology, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.