Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

The three of them are buried out in Pinelawn National Cemetery along with 300,000 other vets and their families. Neat rows of identical stones, white rectangles with rounded tops. Not much to say -- it's the middle of the Island, sandy soil, pine, maple, Canadian geese, sparrows and starlings. Common trees, common birds. Farmland once, nice and flat, made for easy digging. The democracy of the dead -- not Chesterton's metaphor, but the blank equality of death itself. A place like this it's best to keep your mouth shut. Keep your thoughts to yourself.

My old man died the day after Easter -- we buried him in April of 2002. A recording of "Taps," a crisply folded American flag, a hole in the earth. A couple of prayers, flinging dirt into a stiff wind. It'd been a long ride from Jersey, stop-and-go on the Cross Bronx, then another choke on the L. I. E. I could imagine his impatient corpse in its box, "Goddamn traffic." After the interment, another long haul back to Clifton and a heavy meal. But his death was better than the end of his life.

It was a longer ride when we took my mother's ashes to the cemetery, even though we lived closer to Pinelawn at the time. She died at the end of August in a light rain on a blue couch. A couple of weeks later we got the ashes back and made the trip. It was hot and humid, and the Northern State was just as backed-up as the Expressway. A slow-burning fury was our mode of grieving. Using pain to cancel pain. We set the cardboard canister of ashes into the ground. We sobbed, startled by the intensity of the tears. I remember a great exhausted silence on the way back.

Something terrible happened back in 1959 to my mother and father, something that scared me as a six-year old child. They had another son who died two, three days after birth. They never named him and they never talked about him. The grave is right there -- section T, number 859. My father buried the nameless infant in his tiny box. "By myself," he would say. In those days, he drove a two-tone blue Fairlane and the Long Island Expressway only went as far as Jericho.

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