An early Ping tells me that someone wants to communicate with me, and I reach for my phone. Ellen wants me to know that she has the flu and I should not come to the farm today. I had learned this from her friend Jerry late last night. We exchange messages for a few minutes. She says she regrets having to cancel my visit and miss Thanksgiving at the Stony Point Church. I send little hearts and type, "Feel better" several times. Then her little icon stands silent and I lie and listen to the wind blow.
I brought a new flag to the grave of my favorite curmudgeon yesterday. The first one vanished, no doubt blown off its metal pole. This time, I made a kind of lock from twine, something that should keep the flag from slipping off the end and skittering across the lawn into the lake. I brought fresh flowers for Joanna, placing them in bottled water and a cemetery vase from Michael's. The brass one has not yet been replaced. I think to myself for the tenth time: What kind of person steals brass vases from a grave? I would really like to know.
Driving down Holmes Road after my cemetery visit, I suddenly think about my mother's grave. She lies in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, with my father, my brother, my niece, and a host of Corley relatives. I have not gone to visit my mother's resting place in many years, not since we laid my brother Stephen's ashes there, with a picture of his daughter, a pair of Cardinals tickets, and a Grateful Dead sticker on the side of the brass box. I tried to find Mother's grave once but got lost in the cemetery. On the other hand, I drive to Jay and Joanna's resting place by instinct now. I cannot explain the comfort that I take from my visits. I don't quite understand it myself.
But my mother's spirit haunted me yesterday, and a memory rises within me.
We're at a cemetery. I can't say which one, we visited so many. Mother collected graves like others collect glass, or stamps, or musical instruments. Mom would stroll among the old raised stones and crouch before the broken angels. She traced the names of dead children with the red raw fingers of a woman who has scrubbed too many pots.
I carried the wax paper and knife in a paper bag and walked beside her, waiting for her to decide which stone to memorialize with a wax paper rubbing that day. I stepped between the graves, shuddering, apologizing in my mind to anyone beneath my feet who felt defiled. Mother had no such qualms. She sat with crossed legs on one person's grave while studying the Bible verse on the grave next to it. I hovered in the background, her daughter, but not like her.
"Mom, come on, you know I don't like these places," I said finally. But my mother merely smiled and stood, shaking her head, beaming at me, continuing to wander among the dead.
She found a baby's grave and reached for the wax paper roll. "Oh look," she whispered. "Just a few weeks old." She leaned down and spread a length of paper over the headstone and held it in position while she rubbed the blade of the knife across it to make the impression. Then the piece of paper went into a folder in the paper bag and we moved away, looking for someone else to visit. I stepped around the baby's grave with care. I felt my lips move; felt my heart cringe. A prayer like a sigh escaped from me and wafted to the heavens.
When my mother had had her fill of visiting the long-dead relatives of others, we walked back to where she had parked the car. She sat behind the wheel for a few minutes, not starting the engine, not rolling down the window. She turned to me. "Will you come visit me, after I'm gone, when I'm buried? When I'm in the ground?"
"Mom, don't be maudlin," I snapped. "Besides, you know I don't like cemeteries. They creep me out. Don't ask me questions like that."
She looked away from her teenage baby girl and gazed across the green expanse, with its dots of stone and its towering angels. I don't know what she thought. She did not say. She started the car and drove towards the gates, pausing to look for traffic, illuminating her turn signal.
"It's okay if you don't come," she finally said.
I did not believe her. I shifted the paper bag to the floor of the car and turned towards my own window, away from my mother. "You're not going to die," I told her. "You're going to live to be a hundred and fifty, and you'll visit me in my grave and say, 'Oh look Mary, the lady beside you is named Irene and died in childbirth.'"
My mother laughed. "I won't say that. I promise. Besides, a mother should not outlive her children, it's not natural." I didn't answer her. She pulled in front of our house and stopped the car.
"Thanks for going with me," she told me. I shrugged. "No, really -- I mean it. Thank you. I know you think it's weird, taking these stone rubbings, visiting cemeteries, reading about the lives and deaths of people we don't know." I turned to look at her then; I did think it was weird and I didn't understand it. But I didn't say so. I just said, as quietly as possible, "Let's have a cup of tea."
We left the car and went into the house, me carrying the bag of rubbings and supplies, my mother swinging her home-made corduroy purse. We lingered on the front porch, talking only of the living, until the sun set and the dregs of our tea grew cold. Then we went, together, into the kitchen, and began to make dinner.