Blessed be the ties that bind.
IT'S A SET OF SNAPSHOTS, ON THE SURFACE SO STRANGE that they're sure to leave my kids scratching their heads some day far into the future when I'm long gone and they're going through boxes of old family photos. And so I'll need to explain. Snapshot #1: A close-up of Grandpa and Grandma Kelly, she in her clip-on sun-glasses and hair held in place by a translucent triangle of polyester scarf; he in K-mart shades and a crisp save-it-for-church ball cap that discreetly advertises some farm implement company. Each tote a folding lawn chair made up of green-and-white webbing. All around them are tombstones.
Snapshot #2: My 18-year-old sister Luanne, standing with clumps of friends, all of them grinning and wearing the dark green gowns of their upcoming graduation and clutching mortarboards that threaten to topple off their heads. You can tell from their Green Bay Packer-colored green-and-gold tassels that there's a good breeze stirring the poplars on this bright Sunday morning. All around them are tombstones.
Snapshot #3: Father Tim raises the chalice during the eucharistic prayer as he stands behind a rickety altar made of some ancient collapsible card table that normally haunts church basements, its ugly brown blotches disguised by starched altar linens that flap in the wind. All around him are tombstones.
What my kids would never guess is obvious to me: another Baccalaureate Sunday that coincided with the Memorial Day weekend Mass. If you're from my little town, you know that such a Mass would take place out-of-doors, in the middle of St. Patrick's Cemetery out on Highway 39, on a knoll next to farms that go back several generations.
I suppose the scene would seem sacrilegious to some: cheap lawn chairs among stately monuments. The careless sound of slamming doors on cars pulled off to the side of the road, their occupants spilling out with friendly chatter. Little kids playing impromptu games of hide-and-seek behind gravestones before parents pull them back toward the make-shift altar. Laughing teens loping carelessly over the graves of their great-grandparents' best friends and worst enemies.
But there are twosomes and threesomes, too, people with more gray in their hair who walk slow, irregular paths along the edges of plots--doing an invisible labyrinth walk--who stop to read headstones, point out a lush new clump of phlox here or marigolds there, sometimes stopping dead still and doing a very solemn and synchronized shake of heads as if to say, "Oh, what a shame." What a shame they lost this boy the way they did. What a shame she was struck down so young with breast cancer--and leaving three kids, too, as if that family hadn't already seen enough tragedy. Though their attitude seems more respectful, it appears to bother them little that younger ones treat this more like a walk in the park than a reverencing of memories. They just seem glad that young ones have come. Showing up is what counts.
"Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth. Mirth of those long since under earth nourishing the corn. Keeping time ..." When I first read these lines from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, something inside leapt with delight, thinking them the knowing lines of a love poem to my farming forebears. They are lines that weave together the importance of sending forth a new generation while standing on ground that's cultivated with the faith, hope, and love of those who've gone before. Lines that capture a very particular constellation in the larger communion of saints: For in a town where you know everybody who walks the street, you also know everybody--or their family, anyway--in this countryside cemetery.
You know of their lives lived full or their promise cut short; and you're bound to think of any one of them as you drive by on the highway, especially if fresh dirt adorns the family plot. Here, all of the living tend to visit all of the dead, one solitary car parked on the gravel path at a time, their lives and families as intricately woven together in death as in life. To amble among the headstones of everyone you know like this is one of the original forms of "walking prayer," I believe. It's like that line from Thornton Wilder's play Our Town, in between one or another chorus of the hymn Blessed Be the Tie That Binds: It's a good spot for those--living or dead--who are "waitin' for the eternal part in them to come out clear."
MARY LYNN HENDRICKSON, an associate editor of U.S. CATHOLIC.
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|Title Annotation:||socializing in cemeteries|
|Author:||HENDRICKSON, MARY LYNN|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||May 1, 2001|
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