Sunday, September 16, 2012

In the necropolis everyone is equal

My brother and I drove out to Pinelawn yesterday -- we always called it that, although nowadays its official name is the Long Island National Cemetery -- to visit my parents' graves. We hadn't been out there for years but it looked pretty much the way we'd remembered it. Cemeteries don't change that much.

Pinelawn is the largest of a number of cemeteries occupying a vast flat tract of mid-Island land stretching from the Southern State Parkway to the Long Island Expressway on either side of Wellwood Avenue. It used to be farmland, like most of Suffolk Country -- one of the towns it sits in is called Farmingdale. The others are Melville and Wayandanch. It has its own LIRR station, although one wonders how much use it gets. It's a long walk from the station to the gravesites. Down the road from Pinelawn, lying to the west of St. Charles Catholic Cemetery -- where our paternal grandparents are buried -- is Republic Airport, a reminder that the aviation industry used to be a big deal on the Island. When I was a kid companies like Grumman and Fairchild used to test aircraft there.

It took us a while to find the graves. Though the cemetery office was closed, they have a automated locator kiosk in the lobby. We typed in my father's name and it told us that he was in "T" section, plot number 859. The Veteran's Administration is well-organized and helpful, not like the Archdiocese of Brooklyn which charges seventy-five dollars to look up a gravesite over at St. Charles.

We passed the pavilion off the circle in the center of the cemetery where my father's burial rite was held. Back then, my brother and I stayed dry-eyed throughout the whole ceremony except when they played "Taps." There's something about that tune that makes you choke up. Even yesterday, it was remembering that moment -- the folding of the flag and the sounding of the bugle -- that seized me. Later in the day my brother said, "When we passed the pavilion -- that's when I felt something." I knew what he meant.

It was quiet out there amid the thousands of stones. Such a relief after hours of fighting traffic and cursing the ugly sprawl of Nassau County. We walked down the the designated row through the thick grass and read off the names of the dead as we passed. When we reached T-859, we stopped and looked at our parents' headstones. There they were, buried with the brother we never knew. He died three days after birth. My father died on April Fool's Day in 2002. That year it fell on a Monday, the day after Easter. I had forgotten the year. My mother was only fifty-three when she died (I misremembered it as fifty-four) -- hell, my brother and I are both older than that now. We stood there for a while.

The trees on the perimeter of the field were filled with birds -- sparrows, titmice, warblers -- and the breeze carried with it that slight scent of the sea that one always picks up on the Island. I was glad that my parents were there. My brother and I had nothing to leave behind but that was okay. God knows when we'll come out here again.

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