I have never been interested in any of this; for one thing I haven't practised the religion in many years, and even more pertinent, I've always considered the entire production the preserve of the 'old folks' in the family: my great-grandmother ('Granny', who raised my mother), my great-aunt and my mother. My great-gran has been dead for many years, and my great-aunt is in Canada with her children, so I wasn't too surprised when my mother asked me this morning, just as I was about to start cooking lunch, if I would go with her to see about cleaning Granny's grave.
"Now?" I enquired, taken aback.
"All right," I replied, suppressing a little spurt of irritation.
The cemetery, with grass cut in the foreground and high grass giving way to forest in the middle and background
By the time I showered and dressed I was actually looking forward to the expedition. We drove to the valley where she was raised and where I spent the first thirteen years of my life, and swung up the side road to the cemetery which is the final resting place of almost everyone on my mother's side of the family.
We parked outside the mildewed wall and entered the unimposing gates where I ground to a halt, flabbergasted. On the right someone had created a small dump, and I identified, among other flotsam and jetsam, a broken computer monitor. In the middle distance, and running all the way to the far perimeter of the cemetery where it began to climb to the hill and merge into forest, was a common species of tall grass, as much as six feet high, covering and completely obscuring the graves beneath. In the foreground and to the left the graves and headstones were visible because someone has recently made a half-hearted attempt to cut the grass.
The makeshift dump, with broken computer monitor in the background
Aghast, I asked my mother who was supposed to maintain the cemetery. I thought it was the church, but she explained that it was a public cemetery and the City Council was responsible.
We picked our way between the graves, clumps and heaps of drying grass and found Granny's grave without much trouble. The only other person in the cemetery was an old man cleaning the grave at the back of Granny's. After a brief chat with my mother, during which she explained who she was in the town hierarchy and he did the same, they agreed that he would clean the high grass in my great-gran's grave, and they came to an agreement on the price. He started immediately, hauling his fork over Granny's headstone and sinking it into the huge clumps of wild grass while my mother and I set off, picking our way through the obstructions as she tried to find the graves of her great-grandparents, their siblings and offspring, and all the others down through the generations.
My great-grandmother's headstone. Her mother, brother, son, and the grandson who died at 8 months are also buried here.
Cemeteries used to unnerve me. Usually, I couldn't get out of there fast enough, and I would try not to think of the dead bodies, rot, worms and bones beneath my feet. I would see a fresh grave, several of which we encountered today, and shudder. Something must have happened in the years since my last visit there, maybe an acceptance of mortality, but I felt none of that old dread this time, and even joked with my mother: "Careful, Mom - you're standing on someone's head!" Or maybe my old negative feelings have been ameliorated by the process of writing about this cemetery in my work-in-progress, a book set in that valley. The cemetery scene is at the very end of the book (I wrote the beginning and the end of the story first), and in it there's a sense of peace, of coming to terms with life and all its complexities. Sometimes I honestly don't know where my writing ends and my life begins.
Granny's grave, cleared of high grass and root clumps
I was fascinated as we discovered the graves of the long departed, the great-great-grandparents, the great-uncles and aunts, the cousin who died of a brain tumor the year I was born and about whom I'd heard many stories, the uncle and aunt who passed away just a decade or so ago. There was more, such as my maternal grandmother's grave, but we had to stop where the head-high grass began. And all the while I couldn't help but think that it's a shame, a disgrace, really, that the cemetery should suffer such neglect from those responsible for its upkeep. I can't pay someone to do the work of the City Council, but there's the power of the pen, and I intend to harness it to try and make a difference.
By the time we returned from our circuit the old man had a friend working alongside him, and I asked if I could take their photos for an article I was writing. Here they are - two old men from the valley of my childhood where all my oldest and deepest memories lie sleeping.
Of course we could not simply pay the good men and leave, life being what it is. When we returned to the car my mother couldn't find her keys so we traipsed back into the cemetery and my heart plummeted. We had spent the better part of an hour weaving between numerous graves, picking our way over and through clumps of grass, holes, broken gravestones and more. Much drama ensued as we called our sister to pick us up and take us to my brother's house where the spare keys are kept. They weren't where they should be, and we could not raise him on the phone. My mom, in desperation, called a friend who has a metal detector. The guy came without a murmur of protest, never said a word about being disturbed in the middle of his peaceful Sunday lunch, took us back to the cemetery, and found the key within five minutes of arriving there. And he didn't even use the detector. (Thank you, R.J.!)
R.J. found the keys down in here where my mother had slipped and almost fallen.
My mother plans to go back tomorrow with white paint and candles to finish the job. I have the day job to attend to, so I'm not sure if I'll be involved in that segment of the proceedings. But my sister and I have agreed on one point: from now on my mother is going to keep her keys on a chain around her neck. We won't entertain any objections; we've had it up to here with her lost key dramas.