I grew up in a cemetery.
Apart from the house I grew up in, the cemetery just four doors down from that house is home to the fondest memories of my childhood, my adolescence, my teenage years, and the pseudo angst-ridden years of early adulthood. In an odd way, it was a second home. Its name, simply enough, was the Cem.
My earliest memories of the Cem are ironically both vague and prominent, those variety of memories that stand out as one’s first memories; those first spikes in experience the child’s mind latches onto as his or her first retained, or perhaps better stated, first retrievable, memory.
These are the memories that come as patches of images. The first set of images depicts a young boy and his brothers walking with their grandmother. She is visiting from out-of-state for Easter, and the springtime images begin with a bright sun shining down between the shady trees along the lonely and winding cemetery streets. Flicking the pointer finger down on the Viewfinder of the mind reveals other images: the blazing red of countless blooming azalea bushes; the large stone mausoleums; freshly scented tennis balls, newly arrived from the Easter bunny, being tossed and bounced back and forth between grandchildren; the winding road cutting through bright green grave-filled fields.
A tad bit older, as my memories begin to take shape and retain elements of motion, I recall walking the cemetery grounds with my grandmother’s oldest son, my uncle. The contrast between the two, and thus the contrast between my memories, could not be more different. With my grandmother, a refined and reserved woman, I recall the winding streets. With my uncle, as reverent and irreverent a man as a paradoxical God could create, I cannot picture the streets. Rather, I picture the grass and the graves. I picture his Irish setter running on ahead of us in search of a rabbit or squirrel. I picture the insides of those stone mausoleums, peering through the barred stained glass windows and counting how many bodies were collected there. Trying to comprehend what lie therein, straining to read the names and dates, I remember wondering if I would want to be put in a mausoleum when I died. The thought frightened and yet intrigued me, and the existence of ghosts all of a sudden seemed quite feasible. Taking a nap in what looked to me like concrete bedroom bureaus, it didn’t seem like much was holding these folks back from taking a stroll about the neighborhood. There’s nothing like six feet of earth to give death its deserved sense of finality.
Instead of the springtime sun, I recall the dusk of early autumn with the slight scent of decay as leaves made their descent to the ground. I remember the stray cats that made their home in a desolate corner of the cemetery. Dilapidated wooden structures could be found there, supposedly built and up kept by a mysterious man who cared for the cats. In my mind these were no ordinary cats, either. Inspired by the mysterious strays, and certainly fed by embellished lore created by my uncle, my mind saw these cats as the dangerous wildcats and lynxes shown on Lorne Green’s New Wilderness.
The older I got, the more the cemetery fills the landscape of memory. Its deserted and hilly roads made it the perfect course for high speed bike rides and testing out a newly constructed go-cart. Years later, and for the very same reasons, it was the perfect spot to learn how to drive. On summer nights, it was the ideal shortcut to Dairy Queen for a grape Mister Misty Float. And its stone wall offered the perfect spot for little ones to watch the passing fire engines and tanks during the Memorial Day parade.
Just beyond that stone wall, and directly down the street from my house, lay the cemetery’s most prized piece of land. The grassy field, bordered on one side by a line of spruce trees, had remained untouched by the dead. Instead, it made for the ideal football field. The “Line of Trees” marked one sideline, a cedar tree marked the other, and giant yews and arborvitaes provided a natural backdrop to both end-zones.
From sixth grade on through all of high school, that field was our home. Just about every afternoon, from 3:00 until dusk, we battled it out on the cemetery gridiron. Four on four. Five on five. Six on six. Teams divvied up (with an occasional steady QB), plays designed on a palm, and a Wilson Duke football. There was beauty in the simplicity of the ritual. Amid tackles, touchdowns and the occasional torn shirt, friendship was formed.
The bonds of friendship grew even stronger on those days when only a small number of the gang could make it. With too few players to field a team, other games were contrived. Ball tag (and climbing trees was off limits). Blind Man’s Bluff in a cemetery! A game of battle royale that included any weapon one could find, including fallen tree limbs, and hiding spots that ranged from thirty feet up in a spruce tree to six feet below in a newly dug grave.
Not surprisingly, these games were short-lived, and it was on these days that young boys truly became lifelong friends. Casually tossing a football back and forth or simply sitting on the curb with a tin of Skoal or a Big Gulp, talk ensued. It was the sort of talk that is universal to the young American male. Simply stated, it was minimal. In the silence, though, and in the profanity-laden barbs, truth dwelled ever so quietly. Truth that spoke of growing up, of trying to fit in, of figuring out how to deal with the opposite sex. It was the quiet of boys struggling for truth – boys struggling together. In any man’s life, it is the friends who struggled alongside you in adolescence that become lifelong friends. Perhaps you drift apart. For the fortunate few, perhaps you never do. In either case, the friendship is eternal, and no amount of time or distance can break that bond.
Unknown to us at the time, we dealt with adolescence in the only way we knew how. We drank. This too the cemetery witnessed. The “Line of Trees” bordering the football field provided a perfect bunker wherein we could spot any patrolling police car long before they saw us. When the headlights or spotlights came our way, we simply ducked behind the nearest tombstone, bush, or tree. The cops didn’t have a chance.
I believe all of us lost our alcoholic virginity at the Cem. Under the moonlit night, shadows would drink their way into oblivion. As such, my memories, like those of my early childhood, come to me in images. With each season new images appear.
In the early dusk of a summer night, bats would dart to and fro above us as we cracked open our first Busch pounders. By the time we were opening our third or fourth beers, darkness camouflaged the bats and lightening bugs speckled the horizon. Their nightly lightshow was a thing of beauty, a random display of light and love too often taken for granted.
When autumn arrived, with the sweet scent of decaying leaves, the Cem was the ideal place to waste the night away. I picture us opening beers, trading stories, and I hear the laughs of friendship. Distant voices call our attention to a shadow walking our way. Leaves crackle and crunch beneath the shadow’s footsteps, and we welcome the latecomer with a beer. The moon glows red as it rises in the southeast.
Soon enough all the trees were bare and winter took hold of the Cem. These were the nights of frigid temperatures, Long Johns, and frozen fingers. When it became too cold, we resorted to the “chalice” method of drinking. Fingers too numb even in our gloves, one would make a fist in each glove to warm up the fingers. Holding the beer with two gloved fists, one could raise the beer to one’s lips without employing the use of nearly frostbitten fingers. Stupidity breeds ingenuity. The reward on those bitter nights, however, was the moonlit snow. One could see seemingly forever on those nights. Snow shut down the world, it seemed, and the silent cemetery somehow grew quieter.
In the spring the azaleas came into bloom, and all the bushes in the cemetery grew extra padding. Twas the season of bush-jumping. With a buzz on, one would charge toward a giant yew and hurl oneself both onto – and into – the yew. With un-spilled beer in hand, one could lean back in nature’s recliner, invisible to cops and the outside world, and stare up at the spinning stars in wonder. From separate bushes we would talk to one another, as if we were all lounging in God’s great big living room.
When we all became of bar age, I fought to hang onto the Cem as our watering hole of choice, but without much luck. There was a life to be lived outside the cemetery walls, and we couldn’t hide behind the “Line of Trees” forever.
Today, however, I long for the “Line of Trees.”
I long for my companions in the cemetery.
I long for a Busch pounder and a bush-jump.
You see, in less than a year’s time, two of those companions have passed on to a different cemetery. They won’t be coming back.
At age thirty, I am unsure how to make sense of it. I take a small amount of comfort in the fact that such friendships are eternal. No amount of time or distance can break that bond.
Yeah, I grew up in a cemetery. I suppose I still am.
Dedicated to Tom and Mike.