Suburban Soliloquy

115. Grave Situation

This is not the first time I have written about visiting my father's grave. My visits have grown less frequent over the years and some day I might stop visiting if ever I should move farther from the cemetery.

Cemeteries have their appeal to me. Not because they are sombre places. For me they are not. Instead, they are a combination of artful landscaping and history. Outside of visiting the sculpture garden, or museum gallery, or packing a valise and traveling to Mesopotamia, cemeteries are the closest I can experience to strolling among stelai. I'm gratified that Ms Keogh, my more significant other, shares in this pleasure and one of our first walks together at the beginning of our romance was through a cemetery in Canton, Massachusetts, the Knollwood Memorial Park.

The eleventh of November, which this year fell on a Sunday, would have been my father's ninety-sixth birthday. I try to visit his grave and have the usual memorial dinner at the local steakhouse on his birthday, but not this year. This year I worked that weekend and didn't want to complicate things by taking the day off. I also thought the steakhouse would be crowded, the holiday falling on a Sunday. I visited his grave the following Thursday. It rained that entire day.

My father is buried in a corner of the cemetery that is the worst spot. It is inches from the arborvitae bushes that guard the perimeter and hold off the traffic on a major roadway. At his corner collects debris from prevailing winds and drunks. I'm happy the billboard that once towered over his corner has been dismantled. It used to blow apart and trash that corner of the cemetery with plywood and paper.

Starting from his unmarked gravesite, I began my stroll smoking a cigar. But I didn't walk far. The day being cold, wet, and windy, I took refuge underneath an oak. The area was enclosed by tall bushes creating a shelter. A circular area, it was paved with slate, the roots of the oak pushing up the slate nearest to it. At the center was a wide, flat gravestone that spread into the shape of a hexagon and rose just high enough to serve as a low bench. Here are buried Theodore Rosen [1895-1940] and his wife, Esther Katz Rosen [1896-1973], their names engraved along the edges of the stone. In past visits I had walked all over this cemetery, which isn't that large, yet if I had ever entered this enclosure before, I didn't remember it.

I later researched the generous guardians whose gravesite protected me from the weather. Theodore Rosen had been an assistant district attorney and later served as Municipal Court Judge for Philadelphia County. His wife, Esther Katz Rosen, whom he married in 1924, was a child psychologist particularly interested in the challenging problems that gifted children often confront. In her will she donated the remainder of her estate to the American Psychological Foundation to promote understanding and assist development of the gifted child.

While standing under the oak and above the Rosens, I considered my curious behavior of visiting my father. Why does an Atheist visit graves? The answer came immediately; it had to do with ambience, the way we seek a particular environment to explore feelings and recover memories. One may as well ask why does an Atheist listen to music. Ms Keogh says, it isn't just that I'm an Atheist, but I am also a Romantic. The purpose of my being in the cemetery that day was to think of my father.

I was slow to learn that my father's unbridled optimism was unrealistic. His reassurance that there would always be a happy ending grew less convincing after he could no longer stay ahead of his money troubles. In old age, the best parts of his mind deteriorated into dementia and I lost that singular source of comfort he provided. Still, while keeping the Rosens company, I realized I was clearly past the bad memories of my father. That rainy afternoon I had only good memories, which was appropriate. From the time I was seven, my father was my only source of comfort and a child is supposed to be comforted, needs to be comforted.

Another thought came to me at that time. I was always disappointed with the cheapness represented by my father's grave, that it remains unmarked. I don't believe my father would have ever minded. He wanted to be buried in a field and quickly returned to the soil. Still, I feel as if I have been unattractively parsimonious. I was ashamed of the pitiful location of his grave, yet I couldn't even bring myself to invest in the artifice of a grave marker. Who would it be for? I am the only one who visits his grave. And then it occurred to me that his grave in the cemetery holds nothing.

I am my father's grave; he is buried in me. I know where this thought originates. It is the result of having my hair cut short, which it has never been since leaving childhood. I have disappeared from the mirror and only see my father when I am brushing my teeth. If I think about my affection for my grandson, I recognize that I am modeling the best features of my father. What remains of my father, the good stuff, is in me. I would like to believe that.

At the center of the hexagon gravestone of Mr & Mrs Rosen is the engraving of a tree, etz chaim I imagine, the tree of life. And these words are engraved around the design, "Tisn't life that matters! 'Tis the courage you bring to it." I liked those words. (Later research discovered that it is a quote from Horace Walpole.) It reminded me very much of my father.

My cigar was getting short, indicating it was time to leave. I left my unfinished Ashton cigar, a #10 maduro, on top of my father's grave and placed on top of that the stone my sister brought from California and asked me to leave there. I won't find either of them there on my next visit. A pity that a geologist doesn't come along and wonder how did this stone get so far from California? It was time to collect Ms Keogh from home so we could go together to the steakhouse and honor my father's memory.

As I drove home in a pensive, but not somber, mood, I was listening to a string quartet performing a piece by Borodin and thinking how much I like music.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"