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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cemetery

Nothing I ever wrote would be of the slightest interest ten years from now. I was yesterday’s fish wrap. If I died…all I’d have to look forward to is a black hole in Lakewood…a short hike from the beach at Lake Calhoun where…Iris and I once skinny dipped at Midnight…looking at the lights of downtown.

~Garrison Keillor, Love Me[i]

The cemetery is always changing, new graves are dug every day, the recently embalmed are laid to rest. Monuments are raised, plaques mounted on walls, headstones stood up, and plates laid down as markers, emblazed with a family crest, a shield, a coat of arms, a name, some dates…a joke, epitaphs.
As much as the cemetery is a place representing loss, a place where we say farewell to our beloved, the departed dead, it is also a place we visit to feel our connection to them in a deeper sense, signifying to us that we have not lost them at all. How we feel when walk through the cemetery, whether we feel loss or gain, that depends on who we are, and what we bring to the moment.
There are many graveyards in the city, but none as beautiful as Lakewood. From its inception in 1871, it was meant to be a work of art, a park at the edge of the city, a place where people were meant to come and stroll, laid out on the gentle hills above the lake, Bde Maka Ska, in view of where the Dakota village had been one hundred years before.
The land for the cemetery was sold to a trust, by a newspaper man named William S. King. King’s Highway runs along the cemetery’s east fence.
King owned all the land on the south end of town, land that was then on the outskirts of the city, just beyond the limits. He sold his holdings to the city in 1885.
When the cemetery was founded the area was rural. It was country, but the city quickly grew up and swallowed it.
The city father’s wanted a burial ground that was new, en vogue, in a style that was popular back East, on the coast. They desired a garden cemetery, a cemetery park that reflected both the water, and the spirit of the city they were constructing. They built a quiet and a lovely place to stroll through, to visit their departed friends, and be waited upon in turn, when they themselves were dead. They wanted a place where they and their families would never be lonely, a place that was stately and serene.
The main gate at Lakewood is wrought iron, with Greek columns flanking it side to side, opening to the world where Hennepin Avenue ends.
Lyndale Farmstead, is just east of Lakewood, across King’s Highway, and it has King’s Hill, which overlooks the cemetery at 40th street.
There is a mansion at the top of the hill that was first built for the mayor of Minneapolis. The Superintendant of Parks lives there now.
King’s Hill is where we went sledding in the winter. It is a broad and steep hill that bottoms out in a wide bowl. We would build a ramp to jump our sleds when we were kids, flying high off the snow in view of the graveyard, fearless and free in the face of mortality.
Even then Lakewood was an extension of our playground.
In 1981, when I was twelve years old, my paper route took me along King’s Highway from 38th to 36th street. 
I made that walk in the dark mornings. I could hear the trees moving from the other side of the cemetery fence. I could hear them moaning inside the cemetery as they stretched their limbs in the wind. My imagination told me that the noises I was hearing could be the groaning of spirits, or the wailing of wraiths, disembodied voices speaking to me from the other side, calling to me from beyond the veil of life.
I walked the quick-step on that part of my route hoping there was some magic in that iron fence that would contain the baleful spirits.   
I have no family in Lakewood, but many friends. The bodies of my family are scattered in other cemeteries throughout the city, and on its outskirts, or their ashes have been cast to the water and the wind.
I have good friends here, people that I miss every day, childhood friends, city kids, boys and girls who I ran the streets with in my teenage years. They are sleeping there now, below the lawns we danced on, leaping over gravestones in the night, heedless of our demons.
We had many nights, in the cemetery, in the summer in the ‘80’s. We would head there in the early morning. We would go there to get away from patrolling cops. We would go there when we were wide awake, and had no place else to go. We would hop over the fence, and get lost in the dark past the hills, where prying eyes could not go. We would run what energy we had left in us, run it out of our bones, jumping over empty graves, freshly dug, jumping into them, and crawling out again. We drank, and danced, and laid in the grass, dodging security all the while.
I used to love to picnic with my girlfriends in the graveyard: Nancy was the first girl I ever took there, walked with, talking shyly, smoking cigarettes, and stealing kisses, on a picnic blanket, on the green lawn.
I wandered there with Tasha, who lived just a couple of blocks away, with Katherine, who smashed my heart it harder than any other girl ever would.
We would linger in the afternoon, and make-out on the steps of the Lowry-Goodrich tomb, when I was young, before I even knew who the Lowrys and the Goodriches were.
They were among the founders of the city. They built the streetcar system in Minneapolis and funded our nature conservancy. They guided the development of the city’s parks, with Charles Loring, and Theodore Wirth.
I would look in through the glass window of the door of their tomb, peer at the marble panels that covered the places where their caskets were set to rest, and wonder who they were.
They were friends, it turned out, friends of the city, and so friends to me, tangentially. They were friends who never had a thought of me, but who gave of themselves to ensure that their city, that my city, was a place of beauty, and peace. 
I have many other friends buried in Lakewood: Megan, and Dan. were the first to go, Pete and Scotty the latest. They were my friends, who, like me, came up on the Southside.
Each of them left us too soon, taking their own lives, three of them by rope, found hanging. Dan rammed his car into a bus so hard, he knocked it over on its side. Their deaths were not connected, except insofar as they shared a common grief. There have been many others in the intervening years, they are buried if different places, and scattered to the wind  
These four, they were fighters, each of them. They were fierce, and fragile people. They were strong, but not strong enough to bear the weight of living, one by one they each pulled opened the door that lead them to the other world, and walked through it with their eyes open, and despairing. 
Scotty had the heart of a hero. He had my heart as well.
He had tattooed a cent sign on each of his knuckles.
He never tired of telling some fool, “I’ve got your five cents,” as he wrapped his fingers into a ball, and closed his fist. He would wallop a man twice his size, each long finger, like a five-penny nail, curled into a hammer’s head.
Scotty characteristically undervalued himself. His fist was worth at least two-bits.
Scotty was slight of frame, and larger than life. He had more charisma than any person had a right to claim. It came easy to him. For his strength and power, his fearlessness, his disdain of convention, and the rules, Scotty paid the price.  
“He loved to sing, and play the guitar, and dance with women…he was a poet…and he loved to fight.” Those were the words I said of him in my eulogy at his graveside, where the collected voices of a throng of friends were gathered together, choked, and silent.
We got kicked out of bars for so many things, so often. I have countless memories of incidences of being ousted. I cannot recall them all. I cannot recall all of the exits we made, passing through the doors with great smiles stretched across our faces, flashing brightly with the sheer pleasure of being human, with the joy of danger, our laughter ringing out in peals of warning.
What could we do, we who loved him, we who followed the great-charismatic, following him like iron along an invisible current, like steel to magnet? 
Sometimes Scotty played that he was John Wayne, John Wayne as Genghis Kahn. “Call me Temugen,” he would shout, “My mother didn’t suckle me to be slain by Tartars,” in his John Wayne voice, as he rushed, quixotically, into a crowd of a dozen men.
He would gleefully charge a dozen men or more, he was uncaring of the numbers, fists raised and flailing, with a faraway look in his eye. Scotty was, like Temugen, a son of heaven.
He would leap like winged Achilles, fleet footed, and floating above table tops, dancing into melee as if on air, in some exotic terrain, an ancient battlefield, or a Star Trek space scape.
We had no choice but to follow and rush in, we fools, we faithful Panzas beside our errant knight.
Scotty the poet loved to fight, but he was not particularly good at it. His tattooed, bruised, and broken knuckles bore the evidence of that.
I could not count the many tiny scars etched into his countenance, or remember the number of times he had to wrap his ribs to ease his breathing.
He always found some honorable pretense to do battle; an insult offered to his class or station, a slight given to a lovely woman (perhaps something he just imagined), a lady who did not ask him to defend her, or care if he did.
Some heroes die in action, some quietly in old age, their glory forgotten. Others tire of the world that they wrapped around them, weary of opposing the outrages of fortune, and end them. Those, like Scotty, taking life in their own hands, unceremoniously leave the stage. They are not often seen as heroes then, no matter how fiercely, and fearlessly they lived, but they were nonetheless.
I have never seen a ghost, not even in Lakewood, but I feel the spirits of my friends stirring in my heart when I walk those hills.
Our dead belong to us, as each of us belongs to the other. Our relationship with them never ends. What was will always be.
Our dead walk with us wherever we go. The dead are not ghosts, they are alive in our memory. The grounds where we lay their bodies down, the places where we spread their ashes, these are not haunted places. The dead are not connected to the physical spaces their bodies lie in, the spirits of our dead are connected to us, through our memories, and our reflections of them.
This is where I want my remains interred, the dust of my body, with a plaque on a wall to mark my place. I want my name set beside theirs, with some mention of my years, and whatever contribution I have made to the world
Leave me in that Uptown cemetery by the Lake.



[i] Keillor, Garrison, Love Me, ch. 13 Calvino, Penguin Books, New York, 2003

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