We pick up a map at the entrance to Forest Hills Cemetery, just beyond the towering red puddingstone arches. “Maybe it’s over here,” my wife says to me as we walk up a steep hill. We float along the river of meandering paths, the graves along the banks like cottages on the shoreline, but we can’t find the grave we’re looking for. The exquisite miniature concrete houses perched above on a steep shaded ledge, distract us. Labels carved into their facades—musician, poet, apothecary—designating their occupants. I climb up the hillside of this tiny town, planting my feet on the mossy rocks to get a better look, peering into the wrapped porches to see who might be sitting there, hoping someone will come out of the three-inch doors and invite me to sit a while.
Later, in front of old stone mausoleums with heavy doors, we look through small, cobwebbed windows at bedrooms for the dead with bunk beds of sarcophagi. We see stained glass windows at the back, chunks of stone that have fallen on the ground in the interior, doors with heavy padlocks. I tease my wife, “Those keep the ghosts inside.”
On the way to searching for the graves of playwrights or poets, scientists or abolitionists, artists, or union army soldiers, we find ourselves in other places. We circle, we make wrong turns, we move toward the center. Each time my wife and I walk in this cemetery, we start out looking for one thing and then spend most of the time finding what we don’t expect.
My wife and I create memories of these dead. As we stand in front of headstones, using the scant information that we find there, I calculate how old the person was when they died, often commenting on their age. Many died young, in their thirties or forties, some not until their nineties. We surmise that if you survive the flu or an infected wound or the measles you are probably very hardy and will live a long time. Some of the stones, scrubbed of their writing by weather, leave us to write our own stories of their lives. Most of the family plots, once surrounded by wrought iron fences, are now marked only with concrete stones, a wisp of the memory of what was once there. The iron furniture for visiting family is gone.
The swirling memories of my younger sister don’t always visit me when we walk in this cemetery. Her recent death still surprises me. For fifty-three years, my place as the third of four siblings seemed unchangeable, until she died. She isn’t buried here; her ashes fill silver lockets and bracelets worn by her children, siblings, and friends, and in two urns, one with our father and one with her husband, who all live far away. My memory, though, of the first time I saw my sister is vivid. My mom walked through the front door of our red brick house where I stood waiting for them to arrive from the hospital. Without taking her coat off, my mom handed me this smooth soft baby wrapped in a pink blanket.
Of course, this memory can’t be true. I was four years old. I doubt my mother would have handed me a newborn baby. Still, the memory persists, along with my feeling that my sister had been brought home just for me. In every photo for several years, my three siblings look at the camera, but I am always looking at Katy. In later photos, our heads lean together, her red curls and pale skin filled with tan freckles rest against my cheek and short dark hair.
One afternoon at the cemetery, my wife and I find a tree laying on its side, a massive copper beech, recently cut down. We can see the rot inside the tree and talk about the care it must have taken to fell this giant without harming the surrounding graves. I stand on top of the six-foot-wide stump of the tree, still solidly sitting in the ground, then step down and over to the tree. I rub my hands over its bumpy bark, lean over and wrap my arms around as much of it as I can get. I rest my cheek along its rough surface, which is surprisingly soothing. We go back another day to visit the tree again, its mighty presence still apparent. I find burls on its surface and large, dark fungus growing along the stump. Ants and other bugs scurry around, hard at the work of living.
“I wonder how old it is,” I say to my wife as I try counting the rings on the craggy base, but there are too many and they are too messy. The wavy wood is surrounded by a sea of sawdust still present from its felling. Orange lichen and brown fungus, heavy concentric circles of it, line the bark in patches. Sap still oozes out of the stump. The bark reminds me of the skin of an elephant.
“A hundred and fifty years, maybe more? Probably planted the year the cemetery was created.”
On the days I walk in the cemetery alone, I always make my way to the tree. I move with easy contemplative steps, careful not to disturb the sleeping residents on this town of grassy hills along curving wide paths sheltered by the canopy of arching beech, maple, oak, and gingko. My memories keep me company. Imperfect concentric circles, sometimes flaring out from a center, steady stretches of peace alternating with undulating waves expanding on one side, never realigning with the past closer to the center.
Another day, while walking, my wife says to me, “I have something I want to show you.” We stray from our usual path at the back of the cemetery, and instead walk straight ahead and then veer left by the pond with a shimmering kinetic sculpture. She examines the map, looks in different directions and then finally says, “It’s this way.” We walk along a grass path and arrive at a small grove, a family plot surrounded by a low stone wall; in the back stands a sparkling white marble girl encased in a glass dome.
Gracie stands on a hexagon pedestal with a layer of leaves at her feet. She wears a dress with a sash, grasping the top edge in her plump hand, right above a spray of flowers. More flowers decorate the delicately embroidered bodice, all the way up to the collar. Her wavy hair, held with a bow on top of her head, flows past her shoulders, and her boots are secured with a gentle line of six buttons up the outer side of her shins. Her face is pensive, her ears tiny, and she looks beyond the glass to the trees, grass, and headstones around her. Gracie has been four years old for 140 years.
My breath is pulled from my chest at the grief of Gracie’s parents at the death of their four-year-old daughter, the confusion her six-year-old brother must have felt, and the decision to hire a sculptor from Quincy to carve this tiny delicate child into a permanent memory. Then I imagine a whole cemetery of glowing white marble statues sparkling in the sunlight or incandescent under a full moon.
We have paused at many graves of children at this cemetery, some with only “baby” etched in the stone, others with no name, just small headstones with a lamb or a winged cherub on top, a symbolic memory. My wife and I contemplate the lives of the families involved. How old was the mother when the baby died? Were their other children? How much longer does the mother live? But Grace’s memory seems alive. We stand for a long time until we walk slowly away, back towards the entrance, walking under leaves green at the upper edges of their bright red capes, engulfing the deep auburn branches, and the scattered throw rugs of brittle brown leaves crunching as we walk through them.
Later that fall I drive to western New York to visit my dad. On the second day of my visit, we pick up lunch and as he puts his wallet back in his pocket and hands me our drinks and the bag of sandwiches, he says, “You might think this is weird, but what I like to do is get my lunch and then go up to a cemetery to eat it. If we get in the right spot, we can get a view of the lake.” I tell him about my recent walks in the cemetery, considering our common enchantment with these peaceful purposeful places.
The cemetery I visit with my dad sits off a wide country road on the peak of a hill. In the distance, a cerulean sky with scattered white clouds edged with silver drapes above a wash of red, ochre, and orange leaves on the outstretched arms of trees. The vast lake stretches languidly below, smooth and polished. A swath of graves surrounds us, mostly marked by flat stones embedded in the ground, all of them with upright artificial flowers in metal vases. I am already forming this afternoon into a memory, encasing it in glass.
I do think of my sister, how could I not, as I walk with my dad, who lost his youngest child less than a year earlier. But the air feels cool and dry on my skin, the trees radiate with color, and I feel easy, light, even grateful, for this walk in a cemetery with my dad. Although we don’t know anyone buried here, we wander the cemetery, noting the dates, ages, and wondering about names and where the people originated. I feel how grief and joy are adjacent, that pressing so closely to mortality and impermanence offers hope and spaciousness to the living.
After leaving my dad several days later, I stop, only ten minutes into my ten-hour drive. I get out of my car in a gravel parking lot on the edge of the lake, the closest portion of the shoreline to the spot where my dad poured my mom’s ashes into the water from the back of a boat six years ago, softly saying, “Goodbye, honey.” The dead of my family are ashes now, mostly without markers attending their graves. The ethereal gauzy memories are marker enough—my mom coming home from work and setting her heavy canvas bag filled with papers to correct, on top of the round white and yellow kitchen table. Her mother’s swoop of styled silver hair, earlobes soft from pulling off clip-on earrings, and her pink-carpeted bathroom with carved candy-like soaps. My other grandmother chasing down a boy who had run into me with his bicycle, the handle leaving a purplish mark across my neck, the smell of the California sun radiating from the hot concrete path. And my sister, the last time she visited Boston, arranging blue hydrangeas in my purple dining room.
One morning back at Forest Hills, my wife and I return to the copper beech and find that the stump of the tree has been removed, leaving an eight-foot crater of soft brown detritus. I walk on it, wanting to be where the giant originated, imagining my own roots growing deep into the fecund soil that remains. I try exhuming the memory of the stump the last time I saw it, dark and stony, like the surrounding headstones. Its memory now a crater rippling with an ocean of waves. The tree still lays on its side, I rub my hands across it, inhaling the scent of wood and crushed leaves.
I return to the cemetery again in early November, this time on my own. I visit Gracie and then I walk along the pond, up a hill, and towards the tree. I can hear the buzz of chainsaws all around the cemetery and I see workers with backhoes, shovels, and rakes removing debris, scraping away the physical evidence of memory. I begin bracing myself for loss. Still, when I make my way up the path and around the corner and see that the tree is gone, I am unprepared, and I start crying. I walk along the shape of the outline of the tree’s remains of dry leaves and sawdust, pick up a handful of the soft tan remains, and let them slip through my fingers.
I begin mourning—the memory of my arms around the tree’s vast circumference, my cheek against its comforting rough surface, and then the new memories I’ll never form. I search for remains of the tree, tangible, solid memorabilia. I find a gnarled chunk, etched with wavy rings of time. The fragment fits in the palm of my hand and I close my fingers around it.
Judy McClure, she/her/hers, lives with her wife in Boston where she writes creative nonfiction that explores relationships, teaching, queer life, and nature. She is currently a student in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator. Her work appears at WBUR’s Edify and is forthcoming at HerStry. Follow her at @mcclurewrites.