Cemetery Visits

There is small cemetery a half mile away from my childhood home. My mother took us kids there to run off steam while she read books. She packed a picnic basket with books, art materials and a blanket and we would trek down the highway to Sacred Heart Cemetery. We never packed food. We played tag and hide-go-seek among the statuaries, but mother said picnicking would be disrespectful to those she referred to as the residents.

The graves were ancient and the markers quite exquisite; concrete statues, crosses and even a small mausoleum. My mother would lay out a blanket, arrange the books and settle down to read. She was not a homemaker; she was hardly even motherly. She was a reader and a classic introvert. When our father left us, she became especially reclusive and our family doctor said she was depressed. He prescribed drugs.

“They make me feel lonely,” she said and flushed them down the toilet. It seemed she simply did not need to be blanketed in human conversation. She never desired the applause or winks of approvals of others. She simply needed books. The cemetery, with its unique lay of the land, was the ideal setting as it provided play opportunities that kept us occupied while mother read in peace.

When her children left home for college and life, Mother no longer went to Sacred Heart Cemetery. She could just as easily read in her empty nest. Home on spring break one April, I asked if we could visit the cemetery for old time’s sake. She packed the picnic basket with books and we trekked down the highway. Nothing had changed. The old cemetery was near capacity; and no new residents. Our elm tree, in the center of the cemetery, was green again after a particularly cold and difficult Chicago winter. The sun-dappled cemetery was in its glory. Without much conversation, mother spread her blanket and opened her book. She had reentered a Jane Austin binge and Pride and Prejudice was her novel in progress. I watched her as she read. She would smile slightly, turn a page, frown through another, and even shake her head ever so often.

I knew she and her book were speaking to each other. Her own life was now so uncluttered without husband, kids or friends. Anything she needed she found in books: relationships, adventures, all belonged to the characters. She was clearly content to read about their lives and leave her own for extended periods of time. That afternoon at the cemetery I longed to ask if she ever needed me or any of her kids, or a friend, anyone. Instead I asked what was going on with the Bennet sisters even though I knew by heart the plot and subplots of every Jane Austin novel.

Mother was beaming, apparently thrilled I asked. “Well, Elizabeth Bennet has revised her opinion of Mr. Darcy,” she began, “and she is actually rereading his letter and keeping an open mind to interpretations. Isn’t that just wonderful?” She jumped to her feet without effort and stood with her arms raised to the sun. Everything, just everything hushed about her and she began a fluttering sort of dance, like a delicate hummingbird whose only purpose was to sprinkle magic within space and time. Her auburn hair picked up the late afternoon light just like it was stardust. I admired her in the warm afternoon hush. We were connected and it was all because Elizabeth Bennet revised her opinion of Mr. Darcy and that was the only thing my mother cared about at that moment.

When I was seven years old, my best friend told me my mother was very odd, and I was hurt and embarrassed. Even at seven, however, my inkling was strong that my mother was unlike any other parent in our town. I remember wishing for a regular mother, one who remembered to sign me up for Brownies or volunteered to organize school bake sales or any endeavor where she would need to make an appearance and be with real people. On that April afternoon in the cemetery, however, I knew mother was indeed an oddity. Yet she was also a magnificent mosaic of the book characters she chose to befriend during time away from a real life she found too complicated. I simply loved her.

Susan Paprocki is an English teacher and writer in Illinois.