Friday, November 13, 2015

A Fine and Friendly Place

                 The grave’s a fine and private place,
                  But none, I think, do there embrace.
                      -- Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”

Or maybe they do. In Peter S. Beagle’s novel A Fine and Private Place, two ghosts – Michael Morgan, a possible suicide, and Laura Durand, a shy bookstore clerk – fall in love. They cannot move beyond the confines of the cemetery, and their posthumous romance will only last as long as they can remember life, love, each other...and themselves. Once they forget these things, they will quietly fade away, remembered only by a talking raven and a bankrupt pharmacist who has been living in the cemetery for almost 20 years.

When I was a kid, my dad used to sometimes drop me off at the old library on Saturday afternoons. After a few hours of rummaging through the books, I’d go outside and sit on one of the marble benches, waiting for him. The town cemetery was right next door. I was always tempted to go exploring there – the old gravestones fascinated me – but never did.

Not till many years later, that is. I was working on my novel A Time for Shadows: parts of it were set in Simsbury, and I wanted to use Antoinette Eno Woods, a prominent figure in town, and her nephew, conservationist Gifford Pinchot, as minor characters. So my son Zeke and I drove over to the cemetery and wandered about the older section, where Woods is buried. That section is situated on a gently sloping hill, and her mausoleum is right at the top. As I stood there, gazing down at the main street and the brick and redstone buildings, I was struck by how little it had all changed since my days of hanging out at the library. It was like one of those antique tinted postcards come to life….

Still much later, I walked through both the old and new —well, newer --sections of the cemetery. My husband Tim is in the former; the latter is the final resting place of many familiar souls, people I either knew or heard my parents speak of while I was growing up.

But maybe “resting place” is the wrong term. To me, they speak; and as I wander among the headstones, bits of conversation, funny and colorful, come to me, making me smile or laugh. I hear Betty, my friend Kathy’s mom, roaring when she walked into the bathroom and discovered that their puppy had chewed her dentures: “Who’s the congenital idiot who let the dog in here?” And there’s my mom’s old friend Cora, one of my very best favorite people. Cora had a very distinctive voice: she was also extremely blunt. One day, my mother and I stopped to see her at the local department store where she worked. Coral smiled at us and, as usual, cut directly to the chase. “I made the mistake of saying hello to your brother-in-law this morning,” she informed Mom. “My God, he is the most boring man alive!” Another time, she was telling us about when she broke her ankle years earlier: she turned to my mother and said, “And your husband said, ‘If you were a horse, we’d shoot you --!’ I could’ve killed him.”

(She actually thought very highly of my dad. Just not at that moment.)

I have a few relatives buried here, too. One aunt – “Ol’ Porkpie-Hat,” Tim always called her -- I was not particularly fond of, but she made for great stories. Like the time she turned to Dad’s best friend, Al, and said, “That was when your wife left you. You remember when your wife left you, Al?”

And just as clearly, I hear my late sister-in-law’s voice: “Of course, he’s going to remember it! He might rise above it, but he’s not gonna forget it!”

Along with the voices come a slew of memory-pictures. My father’s grammar-school teacher is buried here. She was over 100 when she died, and I remember Dad bringing me to see her after my Bat Mitzvah: he brought her the flowers from the bimah (the podium where the Torah is read), too, and talked gently with her for awhile. I stop at the graves of Amos and Pearl George. Amos was the caretaker at the McLean Game Refuge, and I remember how he used to poke fun at Mom for the red poncho she always brought with her to work on. (Mom was a whiz with all sorts of needlework, but it took her forever to finish that poncho.) Pearl was a sweet lady, and I visited her  when I was doing an article at her convalescent home. I didn’t do the flowers thing, but I did bring her a cat picture because Mom had told me how much Pearl was missing her cat.

Cora’s son, who predeceased her, is here, too. I remember the funeral, which was a military one, and how Cora held the folded flag close to her chest, like a child clutching a teddy bear.

A few summers ago, I went to the cemetery with my friend Cel, who wanted to visit her mother’s grave before she moved down South. I figured I’d go look up Cora, as I’d been to her funeral service but not to the internment. It took me awhile, but I found her, buried next to her husband, Pete. There was an elegant little cat carved on the stone. It was very Cora.

Cel and I paid Tim a visit, too. We talked about a lot of things, including the fact that her father (who remarried long ago) was going to give her the plot next to her mom’s.

“Oh, good,” I said. “Tim and I’ll float over and visit you.”

It’s really quite a little township, the center cemetery. And when I walk here, I think that both Marvell and Beagle got it wrong. This graveyard’s a fine and friendly place, and these ghosts aren’t about to fade away any time soon. For me, they are just as quirky and vivid as they were in this life. It’s The Spoon River Anthology but with a much less mournful twist.