The beautiful uncut hair of graves

One of the benefits of being a long-time student of American literature is the way poems and other texts worm their way into consciousness. Today J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery, and I kept thinking of Section 6 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”

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A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.

Two weeping Madonnas

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Tinsel heart

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Hell money

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.

Budding lilac

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.

Flowering dogwood

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Weedy

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

486,867th Dead of AIDS

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

Cauliflorous redbud

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

Canada goose

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

Male and female mallard

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and children?

Canada goose

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

Male and female mallard

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Tulips

Memorial Day 2013

For the past five years, J and I have observed a simple ritual on Memorial Day. We walk somewhere for lunch, then we walk to Newton Cemetery to visit the decorated graves of the military dead. We don’t personally know anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, but it’s a lovely place to walk in the springtime, and Memorial Day offers as good an excuse as any to pay our respects to strangers we never had the chance to meet.

Muskrat - May 27 / Day 147

On last year’s Memorial Day walk, J and I saw so many frogs, turtles, rabbits, geese, ducks, and muskrats at Newton Cemetery, I posted an album solely devoted to the the cemetery creatures we saw. In the springtime, when everything is fresh, green, and young, it’s easy to forget the harsh winter reality that everything eventually dies. That’s why we need a holiday to remind us to remember.

Memorial Day 2013

Sometimes people die at the end of a long and full life, and other times young people are cut down too soon. In either case, the loss is tragic. Cemeteries exist as a final resting place for the dead, but they also exist as a reminder to the oblivious living. It’s too easy in the hubbub of living to forget how lucky we are simply to be able to walk the earth in springtime.

You can view past Memorial Day photo sets at the following links: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Enjoy!

Decorated veterans

It’s become something of an informal tradition. For the past three years, J and I have walked to Newton Cemetery on Memorial Day to visit the decorated military graves there. Although we don’t personally “know” anyone buried at Newton Cemetery, we read the markers, set aright floral arrangements that have fallen over, and remember the stories we’ve heard on previous visits. It just feels right to “visit the neighbors” on this day devoted to remembrance.

Click here for photos from last year’s Memorial Day walk, or here for photos from 2010, or here for photos from 2009. Enjoy, and happy Memorial Day.

Flags for the fallen

This past Memorial Day, J and I took a walk (and took lots of pictures) at Newton Cemetery, as we often do. Cemeteries are lovely places to walk, and Memorial Day is as good a day as any to visit your deceased neighbors.

Flags and flagpole

While J and I were respectfully examining some of the stones in one of the sections devoted to military graves, we struck up a random conversation with a man and woman who were trimming the grass around the marker of a man they referred to as Uncle Fred. Uncle Fred, they explained, was an MIT graduate who served as a Navy fighter pilot because he loved fast cars and wanted a job that satisfied his thrill-seeking nature. Although he quickly rose in the ranks and had the opportunity to train other pilots, he preferred flying combat missions. Uncle Fred’s military career was cut short when he was killed in an accident while landing his plane on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in 1944. He was 27 years old.

Uncle Fred, it turns out, grew up in a house just a few blocks from ours, living the length of his too-short life a generation or two before J and I were born. Due to the contingencies of time, in other words, Uncle Fred is a would-be neighbor whom we never had the chance to know. As we continued talking with the man and woman who were tidying Uncle Fred’s grave, J and I realized that they’d never had the chance to meet him, either. The woman had married into the family after Fred, her husband’s brother, had died, and the man, her son, was born years later. “I’m almost glad I wasn’t a member of the family then,” the woman confided. “I don’t think I could have handled that kind of loss.”

Memorial wreaths

I remembered this random conversation with two strangers about their Uncle Fred because it says so much about the power of memory. Neither this woman nor her son had met “Uncle Fred”; they’d simply heard the oft-repeated stories about him. And each Memorial Day, they kept these familial stories alive by visiting the cemetery where Uncle Fred and other family members are buried, bringing kitchen shears and garden tools to trim the grass around their graves.

Memorial Day is a holiday set aside to remember fallen soldiers, and November has its own share of remembrance days: All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days to remember the dead, and Veterans Day to honor living veterans and active servicemen and -women. Although a lot of folks dislike Veterans Day because of its association with war, in my mind today isn’t about anything so abstract.

Decorated and remembered

Veterans Day isn’t a holiday to advocate war or support the troops in an abstract sense; instead, it’s a day set aside for thanking the real-life men and women–our neighbors, relatives, friends, and friends of friends–who have served or currently are serving in the military. As Algernon noted recently, “[p]eople join the military for lots of reasons”: some are in the military because they support and want to serve in a particular war, others enlist because they’re looking for adventure, and others join the military because they see it as their best chance of getting an education and starting a career. Each and every “Fred,” in other words, has a story all his or her own, and today is the day we remember those stories with gratitude. Veterans Day is an annual opportunity not only to remember but also to thank our own “Uncle Freds.”

At rest

It’s become something of a holiday tradition for J and me to take a long walk on Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, we decided to leave the dogs at home and take a stroll to Newton Cemetery, where we’ve walked in the past.

One eye open, times two

J and I like to walk at Newton Cemetery for the same reason I like to walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Newton Cemetery is basically a pretty park where people happen to be buried. Because of the graves, the atmosphere at Newton Cemetery is quiet and tranquil: you can walk the roads without worrying that cars, joggers, or cyclists will run you down, and you can take your time looking at monuments without feeling like you’re hogging the view of other browsers, as I sometimes feel at museums. In a good garden cemetery, all the lanes are the slow lane, so you can enjoy a leisurely stroll admiring the landscape, remarking on the architecture, and paying your respects to strangers. Since Newton Cemetery is a gentle walk from J’s house, going for a cemetery-stroll feels like one way of meeting the neighbors, even if those “neighbors” no longer happen to be alive.

Reflective

Walking in a cemetery also serves as an excellent reminder of how grateful you are simply to be alive. When J first suggested that we go to Newton Cemetery for our Thanksgiving walk, I quipped, “Ah, so we can spend Thanksgiving afternoon being thankful we’re not dead?” J immediately responded, “Yes, and that’s true everyday.” Ah, yes: a point well taken. Every time we’ve walked at Newton Cemetery, J and I have happened upon some particular marker that stops us cold, whether that’s been a tombstone with my name on it, the grave of a local victim of 9-11, or an entire field of war dead. This trip to the cemetery, we spent a lot of time looking at markers of the recently deceased, many of which had been decorated for the season by grieving family members. There’s nothing like a tombstone bearing a autumnal bouquet from a grieving widow (complete with a greeting card, “To my husband on his birthday”) or a yet-unveiled stone for a stillborn infant (freshly adorned with toys and with the carved inscription “Step softly, our dream lies buried here”) to make you realize how lucky you are.

Mallards

And then there are the waterfowl. Like most garden cemeteries, Newton Cemetery has several ponds that add a quiet, contemplative tone to the landscape, and like most cemetery ponds, the ones at Newton Cemetery are popular with ducks and geese. During a cemetery stroll last spring, J and I chatted with one widow whose decision where to bury her husband was decided in part by the ducks and geese of Newton Cemetery. Over the years, whenever she’d visit her husband’s grave, she explained, she and her children would bring stale bread to feed the waterfowl, making an otherwise sad visit a bit more happy. “My children love it here,” she explained, gesturing toward her now-teenaged kids. “One of my sons said the other day that this cemetery isn’t a dead place, because there’s always something new to see here.”

Always something new to see, indeed. Just when I’d thought that the waterfowl of Newton Cemetery was limited to the usual mallards and Canada geese, on Thursday we spotted a half-dozen hooded mergansers who carefully kept an entire pond between themselves and our impertinent camera lenses. Apparently even a cemetery doesn’t always provide the privacy that wild ducks crave, at least when the local paparazzi are taking a stroll.

Hooded mergansers

Click here for a photo-set of the various waterfowl we saw on our Thanksgiving Day stroll at Newton Cemetery. Enjoy!

Eventually...

J was the one to spot “my” grave during our stroll through Newton Cemetery this afternoon. As much as I enjoy exploring cemeteries, today was the first time I’ve ever encountered a tombstone with my name on it. As far as I know, I don’t have any relatives living (or once living) in Newton, Massachusetts, so I’ll assume “DiSabato” is more common a name than I knew. Still, it’s a bit creepy to turn around and see a carved-in-stone reminder of your own mortality. There eventually go I, and you, and all of us.

War memorial

I don’t normally find cemeteries to be creepy places…and yet, I occasionally see memorials that stop me cold, offering as they do a tangible reminder of the mortality we all share. Tombstones marking the graves of children always give me pause, and today, J and I saw several graves that were adorned with Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers, a sign that the Dearly Departed really are dear. After seeing the usual His and Hers grave markers with the name of a still-living widow or widower next to the birth and death dates of a deceased spouse, J talked of visiting his grandfather’s grave with his grandmother, her name chiseled alongside her husband’s. I suppose there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing where and with whom your ultimate resting place will be,visits to your own (eventual) grave being one way of getting to know your (eventual) neighborhood.

Both J and I grew quiet when we approached a field of war dead, that portion of any cemetery always seeming too large. But the memorial that stunned us both into silence was this one, the death date (September 11, 2001) explaining why this particular loss happened far too prematurely:

Rest in peace

After we got home, J went online find the face and story behind the stone. Some souls continue to be mourned even by those of us who never knew them in the flesh.