My mother loved graveyards.
She could spend hours inspecting vaults and tombs and stones — not just for their craftsmanship, but also for the stories they tell. Young brides (“Bet the husband worked her to an early grave”), odd names (Zebediah, Zebedee, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah) and centenarians (“I’m sure he started every day with a shot of whiskey”) fascinated her. She was most enthralled by multiple children’s deaths. She’d stand, arms crossed, postulating aloud about what pestilence or tragedy befell that household. Discovering an entire family’s takedown was a jackpot.
My mother also had what can only be termed grave-dar. No matter where we went — and we traveled far and wide, from the tip of Tasmania to the top of the Isle of Skye — her homing instincts zeroed in on every burial ground we came near. This often meant slamming brakes and parking with tires sunk into a soft shoulder beside a narrow country road, putting us at risk of joining the subjects of her curiosity for a round of canasta in the sweet hereafter. I learned early on to take the wheel when we went afield.
Cemeteries also brought out my mother’s competitive instincts. (Only a Peavey could turn tomb-tending into a contest.) She toiled at the graves of her parents until she had whipped that plot into Better Homes and Gardens style for everyone in the mourning set to admire. She would then move on to inspect the neighbors’. She’d tsk at the slightest sign of neglect, even if the dearly departed had departed a couple centuries ago. An untended grave was an abomination. She didn’t even like the sight of a sere leaf or faded bloom. Every so often she’d deadhead a plant on an adjacent grave, just to make a point, and admonish the absent heir: See, would that have killed you?
Every year, a couple days before Memorial Day, she’d load up the car with a tub of flowers, a spade, a rake, a watering can, and sometimes me, and make that trek to Gorham. (It was important to have the grave in order before Memorial Day proper, when the masses arrived.) She’d dig up the leavings of the prior year’s stalks and roots, give the soil a good working over, and then get busy making that garden grow. As a child and young adult, all this bored me to tears. I’d watch for a while, then sigh and snort and go sit in the car. I just didn’t see the point.
To be perfectly honest, my lack of interest didn’t change much even after my beloved father died suddenly, when I was 26. I’d join my mother on her grave-tending rounds, but only to keep her company. I’d say, “Hi, Dad,” when we arrived, mostly because it felt rude not to say something. I was still in shock, half-expecting him to pull into our driveway on High Street in his Delta 88 Royale. I mean, I knew he was gone, but I also knew he wasn’t there at the cemetery. My dad liked to be where the action was. Even though he never had a chance to tell us where he preferred to spend his afterlife, I could almost hear him say, “Anywhere but around all those dead people.”
I did make a couple early solo trips to his grave, once to show him the brand-new, bright-red Honda CR-X (didn’t you just love the ’80s?) I bought with my death bonus. The bulk of the estate went to my mom, but my brothers and I, for some reason, each got a small sum, like a consolation prize. (“Thanks for playing Lose Your Dad! And here’s your lovely parting gift!”) I also stopped by to say goodbye before I moved to San Francisco. As I said, I knew he wasn’t there, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. “Bye, Dad,” I said, careful not to stand on top of him. Then, not knowing what else to do, I kissed the stone and drove 3,000 miles away.
Of course, Mom’s flowers were perfect.
Not everyone shares my ambivalence for resting places. Certain cultures believe you can commune with the dead, and people throw parties around tombs and graves. They provide food and drink for the deceased, light candles, sing and gossip, as though the guest of honor could actually savor that gin and tonic placed atop her plot. (Hey, how about a straw down here!) In fact, I read about a cemetery in Texas that had picnic tables and playgrounds to accommodate all the family reunions held at its site. (When I just now tried to find the link again to confirm this information, I somehow got sent to a search for “graveside parties for kids,” and was waylaid. Just take my word for it.)
Later in my mother’s life, she could no longer make the trip to Gorham to tend her parents’ graves, and she’d ask me to do it. I’d grudgingly agree, secretly thinking I could just say I had gone and not waste my time. But the superstitious streak in me thought this would be bad mojo of the highest order — especially in matters concerning my Puritanical grandfather, who still looms large over his decedents. If any of us in the Carson line fails to pull his or her weight in some fashion, we all feel the eye of Saul boring down on us. (Hence all the burn holes in the back of my head.)
So off to the graveyard I’d trot, but my effort was perfunctory. I’d yank the strangled stalks of dead geraniums, toss them aside and plunk the new batch in the rich earth my mother had cultivated. Job done well enough, I guessed, but as I scurried out of that yard I’d shield my head, just in case.
My mother died on May 28, 2009 — three days after Memorial Day. Did my brothers or I tend to the grave that summer after the burial? I don’t think so. I do know that I only stopped by once during that first year, and that when May rolled around, the weight of grave responsibility hung like a millstone around my neck. With the queen grave-keeper gone, it was up to us.
I felt a dire need to gussy things up for Mother’s Day, even though it was a bit early to put anything living in the ground. My family (what was left of it) convened at the plot to plant a scraggly geranium that my sister-in-law had wintered-over indoors. I don’t recall how or why we settled on this pitiful thing that was a quarter-to-croaking itself, but when I was back in Portland I called my brother to go yank it out. What, I thought, would the neighbors think?
Two weeks later, shortly before Memorial Day, I was back with a couple healthy geraniums from the farmers’ market, but once I got them in the ground they looked measly. I sat back on my feet. I’m no gardener. I don’t know how to do this. Why hadn’t I paid attention? Where was my guide? I had failed.
OK, I had failed because I had cheaped out. Cheaped out on my mother, who had fed and clothed me, supported me all through my fledgling writing life, taken me on trips and out for meals and bequeathed me a lovely parting gift that made up for the fact that, at 49, I’d yet to start an IRA. As thanks, I’d bought her two lousy geraniums for her grave, instead of three. I tried to fluff them out as much as I could, but their puffy red heads only highlighted my stinginess. The image of the sorry grave haunted me all the way back to Portland, where I e-mailed my brother and pleaded with him to fill in the empty spots before Memorial Day arrived.
In the ensuing years, we’ve gotten a little more adept. My brother, with his trusty trowel and green thumb, has cultivated that soil to black fluff. Even after a long winter, you can loosen it with a pen. (Yes, I forgot to bring tools when I planted a couple geraniums there this past Mother’s Day.) The grave is now well-tended. It’s flanked with hosta (one of Mom’s favorites), and one of us puts in a mix of geranium and sweet allysum before Memorial Day every year. For the past two years, we decided to do it together. I can’t say these gatherings are a party. Nobody’s swinging on a swing or mixing drinks, though Dad would’ve wanted to know why not. It’s a Mom legacy we’ve chosen to honor.
I still don’t visit very often, but when I do I make sure to take a turn around the grounds and check out the other stones and plots. I know it’s not a contest, but it doesn’t hurt to see what the competition is up to.
Elizabeth Peavey’s one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, returns to St. Lawrence Arts, June 4 & 5. Tickets and info at stlawrencearts.org.