My family plot at the Catholic cemetery is nearly full but until recently, contained no headstones. Under the ground are the coffins of a dozen of my father’s ancestors, but they were too cheap to buy headstones for one another, so for 150 years it was a just a square of neatly mowed grass with the surname “Kelly” engraved on a small granite stone set flush with the ground. Everyone sleeping and passersby never knew they were there. The branch from a Live Oak tree in a neighboring lot hangs over ours like a curtain rod, covered with Spanish moss that swings slowly in the breeze. My father always told me he and my mother wanted to be cremated and have their ashes buried there when their time came. What’s more, there was room for my future family, and me too.
“See, a box of ashes doesn’t take up much room and can be buried on top of the coffins. Those have to be buried much deeper,” my father explained.
“We can go right on top of them!” he beamed, stacking his hands one on top of the other to demonstrate.
His exuberance about the family’s eternal rest never seemed odd to me, familiar as I was with his love of cemeteries. Holidays and birthdays were spent in them, and not just the one with a stone bearing my name. He loved them all, just as his mother had, and was determined to make all my Sunday memories those of the two of us walking between the headstones; he telling stories and me in rapt attention. Sadly, it took years for me to actually enjoy it. I skulked around twirling my hair around my index finger and asking the time. One way he charmed me was teaching me how to drive in Laurel Grove when I was about fourteen, practicing my parallel parking between the headstones.
“Now, don’t mention this to anyone, Darling,” he’d say. “Some might think it’s disrespectful, even though you and I know it’s not.”
I loved that, the way he’d said it as though we were members of a secret society.
Much of our time in Laurel Grove cemetery was in the 1980s, before it had its own preservation society and was largely restored. Back then you had to look out for wild dogs roaming around because of food trash thrown from the highway ramp nearby. He created games for us to play. My favorite was called, “How old was I?” as in “How old was I when I died?” Together we’d look at the birth and death dates on the headstones and compete to see who could subtract them the fastest and say the person’s age at death. There were tiny, delicate headstones for children, with lambs and flowers carved on them, but we didn’t play the game with those; the math was too easy and they made me sad.
My father had favorite crypts and would rate them in “Top 10” order based on the intricacy of the stonework or the ones in best condition after a century of neglect. There was one, at the far edge of Laurel Grove, he loved most and said he’d buy it someday and restore it just for fun. It had been abandoned for years and its heavy, iron door was ajar, its lock mechanism missing. Years later, I found in a box of his a tarnished, fifteen-pound brass lock wrapped in a piece of black velvet. I wondered if it was the lock from the abandoned crypt, pried from its door or perhaps discovered lying on the ground, covered by leaves, and he just snatched it up. I still have the lock, wrapped up, silently waiting to be reunited, polished and reborn with some door.
He’d taken my mother to Laurel Grove on one of their first dates. A summer storm descended as they walked between the headstones and they ran back to his car in the rain, laughing and holding hands. As storms so often do in Savannah’s springtime, it passed quickly so they emerged to continue their walk. Just as they passed the abandoned crypt, the door swung open and an old black man stepped out. My mother screamed bloody murder and took off running in her Pappagallo heels.
“She went completely apeshit,” Daddy would laugh. “That poor, old man just was just standing inside the crypt to get out of the rain, but your mother got so scared she never let me bring her here again.” I would laugh, too, even though I knew the story by heart. As we walked he would put his arm around my shoulder and say, “I’m so glad you love coming here as much as I do.”
Another favorite was the epitaph game. On the graves of the war heroes, quotes were inscribed to capture the soldier’s valor and bravery. Daddy would quiz me as we passed them and give me the first few words and I’d have to complete the rest from memory.
“I go…” he’d start.
“…to illustrate Georgia.” I’d return.
“Well…” he’d start with a grin.
“…they’ve killed me, boys!” we’d finish together, laughing.
That one was his favorite. When we’d run out of games, we’d explore the edges of cemeteries, especially Bonaventure. There, even more than walking among the headstones, we’d search the underbrush at its edges to search for artifacts, crossing over to the two other cemeteries next door, Forest Lawn and Greenwich. The old, man-made pond that used to serve the grand house when Greenwich was a plantation in the 18th century still looms in the shade; its house was burned down for decades before the land became another of Savannah’s cemeteries. We walked around the edge of pond, its water green and murky, and Daddy would tell me about the plantation, explaining man-made ponds were the height of fashion in the Victorian South and that often paddle boats, in fanciful shapes like swans, would be made to float in them. Almost in a trance, he’d point out over the pond with a stick.
“Out there, can’t you just see it? A swan-shaped boat with gold gilt on the tips of the wings…just floating around.”
He shivered. He always did that when he was excited, even in the heat of summer.
“They used to have such lavish parties at the plantation house. They’d bring their huge dining room table outside…well, they’d actually make the slaves do it, but they’d eat supper right out on the lawn by candlelight on the bluff overlooking the river. Can you picture it, Darling, how beautiful it must have been?”
“How about we go order your mother’s headstone today?” My father said the morning after my mother died. “I know where to go and they’ll give us a good price. Do you know what you want it to say?”
I’d slept till noon that day and once awake, stared at the ceiling for a long time. I felt no obligation to get up and rather liked the cloistered feeling. Life was suspended and everyone held their breath when they thought of me. I felt oddly giddy when I thought about everybody fussing over me, trying to take the burden off, the shock they were sure I felt.
“Why don’t you pick me up and we’ll go over to the stone place together?” Daddy said, “Listen, you okay? I know last night must have been hell, but there’s no one on Earth she would’ve wanted holding her hand at the end but you. I don’t take any credit for how you’ve turned out. You’re stronger than I’ll ever be.”
I didn’t feel strong, though, or weak, just a nameless thing that was joy and sadness mixed together, reprieve from suffering and watching someone you love suffer. When it ends you feel as though your head is only connected to your body by a silvery string.
“I’m really okay, thanks, though. I’ll pick you up in an hour,” I said.
He had a vague idea of where the headstone place was, but it took us awhile to find it. “Let’s see,” he said as he started to get his bearings. “It’s on a little side street…bad neighborhood…just a big lot with a chain link fence around it and a trailer over in the corner.”
From his description, I could see this wasn’t going to be anything like my recent funeral experience at Fox & Weeks where it was all men in suits, hushed voices, and offers of bottled water. I could never find it again and don’t believe it even had a sign. I don’t remember its name. Daddy knew about all kinds of strange, little-known businesses and didn’t trust any store that hadn’t been around when he was in high school.
I parked the car and Daddy pulled open the wide chain link gate for me. Marble and stone lay everywhere: misspelled ones and finished pieces families never paid for. Most were stacked under ramshackle sheds; corrugated metal roofs propped on crude re-bar supports to protect them from the weather. We wandered around for a while before we saw anyone; a red-faced man in his late fifties wearing jeans, a grey T-shirt and a baseball cap soaked with sweat.
“Oh, hey, y’all. Sorry, I didn’t see you. What can I do for you?”
The man glanced expectantly between my father and me for a moment and then extended his hand to my father, disregarding me, not coldly, but in the way a car salesman might’ve in the 1950s. Daddy noticed and seemed to want to turn it over to me. He cut his eyes at me and took a step back, as if to say, “Go on, Darling. Tell the nice man what you want.” I stood silent, unsure of how to start what seemed like such a surreal conversation, and Daddy went ahead and told the man I needed a headstone for my mother. The gravestone man took off his cap and placed it over his heart.
“Has she just passed, dear?” he asked me.
“I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am” he said, then and added for my father, “and your family’s loss.”
“She was my ex-wife. This is my daughter,” Daddy said, hooking his thumbs into the pockets of his pants.
“Well,” said the man, “why don’t we step inside and you can tell me what you had in mind? It’s nice and cool in there. I got a window unit.”
He opened the door for me and held up his arm to serve as a railing as I stepped onto the cinder block steps. The trailer was chilly inside and the window unit air conditioner roared. Tiny strips of pink and red ribbon were tied to the vent and whipped enthusiastically. The man’s desk was stacked high with papers and invoices and a set of rosary beads hung from a thumbtack securing a calendar to the wall. The man ruffled the papers around and found what he was looking for: a pair of drugstore reading glasses. He pulled a spiral notebook out of the pile, swiped away a clearing in the mess, and sat down. After we agreed on the size and material of the stone, he brought out a template showing how much text could fit onto the stone and what embellishments could be added. It was a piece of poster board, cut to the size of the stone with the text written in magic marker.
Petunia Marie Pinckney
Ye May Be the Children of Your Father Who Is In Heaven, Third Nephi 12: 45
~Devoted Daughter of God~
Around this were drawn four crosses, a lamb and a garland of roses hanging all over everything. It was the tackiest thing I’d ever seen and I had to consciously stop my nose from crinkling up at it.
“I think I just want her name, birth and death dates, and something underneath,” I said.
“No embellishments?” said the man. “A lot of people get their mother’s favorite flower carved on it, like this, or maybe her favorite scripture in pretty cursive?”
“No. No, just say…” I stopped.
Daddy leaned toward me and whispered, “You take your time.”
I thought about the mother who’d slipped away the night before and couldn’t bring up an accurate sentiment. I don’t mean that I felt numb, but more, empty. Clean. It made me shudder. I thought back, back to my first mother, let’s say, that one that slipped away years before, when I was fourteen years old. I’d thought of her so many times in the intervening years, but she was made of traces, sounds, and photos. It was in the spring of my first year at St. Vincent’s that the tumor in her lung spread into her brain. Her body stood strong and fought, but her mind turned and ran away, so fast I couldn’t catch her. I’d chased her in my dreams, though, reaching for her perfume, her laugh, the way she moved her hands.
“Just say…‘Beloved Mother’” I told the gravestone man.
I looked over at my father who closed his eyes and nodded silently. My shoulders lowered with relief. He liked it. I could tell that’s what he’d wanted me to say.
“Alright, ma’am. That’ll be $900. You want to write me a check now, er…?”
Daddy cleared his throat, “Could you give us a better price if we purchase two?”
The man shook his head, confused, and looked at back and forth between Daddy and me.
“What’s that you say? Two? Well yes, if you do two of the same stone with the same typeset, we could do ’em back to back so yeah, I could…do two for $1,500.”
“I’m gonna go ahead and buy one for myself, Baby,” Daddy said, extracting his checkbook from his fishing vest pocket without looking at me. “Just to save money, like he said.”
Uneasiness spread through me and my face colored a little. To the man he handed a small slip of paper he’d hidden inside the flap of his checkbook cover. “Here’s what I want on mine.”
The man took the slip of paper and squinted at it.
“Alright. So you want your name, birth and death dates and, ‘Returned to Cosmos for Repairs’?”
He stumbled over the word ‘cosmos’ and Daddy corrected him. The man glanced at Daddy over the top of his reading glasses, then back down at the slip of paper.
“Right, cosmos. You want anything else on there? ”
Something tugged at the edge of my consciousness, hidden but familiar. As we emerged from the trailer into the oppressive June heat, our transaction complete, I identified the feeling as dread. I felt it again soon after, but kept quiet. During our picnic of fried chicken and white wine on the bluff at Bonaventure, Daddy mentioned he might need a ride to the VA hospital in Charleston the following week because he needed to have some more tests done.
“Okay,” I nibbled the skin off my chicken and watched as a swath of moss fell from the branch of a nearby oak, “I can take you.”
I knew it didn’t help to press someone you love when they’re lying. If someone you trust wants to protect you, you should let them. I’d been about fourteen when I’d learned that.
Kelly Flick lives in Savannah, Ga. She earned her degree in fine art and works in marketing. She is a member of the International Women’s Writing Guild and the Peacock Guild which meets at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. When not working or writing, she can usually be found people watching on nearby Tybee Island.