Monday, February 23, 2015
It has become an annual trip. A pilgrimage. And though we don’t remove our shoes or crawl on our knees or touch our foreheads to the ground, we probably should. The spot is that sacred.
There is a tree nearby and an obelisk which serves as a landmark, a way to find that particular spot among the 54 acres of granite slabs thrust into the earth like candles on a birthday cake. We park the car and unfold ourselves out, pulling our coats tight and tucking our chins into our chests. It seems not the least bit odd to say, “Good morning, Margaret,” as we approach the gray monument, polished to a mirror shine on the side into which letters and numbers have been carved, sharply and deeply, like her impact on each of us.
Someone points out a woodpecker on a bare branch above our heads and a discussion ensues as to what kind. Despite the fact that Margaret would not have known the difference (She was more of an inside girl, preferring her nature in the form of botanical prints and pink and yellow chintz.), we take his appearance as an omen. In a cemetery you can’t help but look for omens.
In a cemetery you also can’t help repeating yourself. You comment on the convenience of the stone bench as though you have not seen it every other time you have been there. You note the names on the nearest stones and recite the connections as though they are your own. You read aloud the epitaph and, every single time, murmur, “Just perfect.”
Repetition creates ritual and ritual is really nothing more than remembering. Remembering with the deliberate purpose of not forgetting.
It is time to go. One of us reaches into her pocket and pulls out a penny, places it tenderly on the ledge at the bottom of the stone. She covers it briefly with her gloved hand.
“Why the penny?” someone asks.
It is a story, surprisingly, that the rest of us have not heard: When Margaret was in her 70s she volunteered at her church by driving “old people” to doctors’ appointments. Some of the old people were grateful and gracious, some not so much. One day she was driving one of the sweet ones and the woman, upon being delivered back home, reached for Margaret’s hand and slipped her a penny. “Thank you,” she said, “for being my friend.”
“Every now and then,” the penny-placer tells us as we stand with hunched shoulders in the bright winter sunlight, “Margaret and I would send each other pennies.” Her voice breaks just a bit as we all look back down at the little circle of copper, the warmth from the hand that placed it there already gone.
We begin to move away. We fold ourselves back into the car and wave as we drive away. We pass two people walking dogs.
I am old enough now to miss a lot of people. Some of them are absent from my life by reason of death, some by geography, some by strange combinations of choice and unavoidable consequence. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a song or see a street sign or get ambushed by an unexpected thought that brings to mind and to heart a voice, a face, a touch of someone gone. Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there is a soft sigh or a sharp gasp. Often there is a smile. But always, always there is the longing.
I want a pocketful of pennies. I want to hand them out to all the ones who are gone. I want to say, “Thank you for being my friend.”