As a kid, I could go in my backyard and see a cemetery through the chain-link fence—the Laurel Hill Cemetery, to be exact, a first name just a bit close to my own. On occasion, I would see grave diggers or mourners when a burial took place close to my house. I never thought about them seeing me, though now I wonder whether I was ever a distraction, doing whatever random things a kid does in the backyard.
When I was very young, my sisters and I would play in the cemetery with other kids from the neighborhood. We would climb on a row of small headstones and pretend we were on carnival rides. Part of me wants to justify that behavior now and commend us on our imagination, while the other part of me has no idea why that seemed like a fun activity.
We would also go visit a large square gravestone that was topped with a huge, dark grey reflective ball. We called that ball “the world.” We could see our neighborhood reflected in it, so it did seem like a globe of sorts, displaying where people lived. I often stood on the bottom edge of the base and imagined climbing up that gravestone, but there wasn’t even enough room to stand on the top of the square base, never mind scale the slippery sphere on top.
When we did want to climb, we would head to a couple of boulders further up one of the hills. I could climb one easily; the other, I might have tried at some point, but my only memory now is the memory of knowing that it was beyond my ability level. I climbed the boulder I knew how to climb, and I felt good about it. That seems like a shortcoming in my character now, all these years later, this lack of interest in pushing myself to do what seemed difficult if not impossible. But I’m gonna give myself a pass because I may have known, even at a young age, that there wasn’t any reason to climb the second boulder beyond just saying that I did it. That would’ve been something, but it’s not the kind of purpose that compels me even today.
Carnival rides, the reflection of the world, the boulders to climb or to not bother climbing. And more.
Sledding down small and medium and suicide hills year after year, on wooden toboggans with iron slats and on red plastic sleds with yellow handles. Dodging gravestones and trees. Overly-soft snow and overly-wet snow. Trudging up hills with soaking-wet mittens. Bailing out of sleds, diving into the cold, to avoid crashing into the stone wall that separated the cemetery from Main Street.
Riding on Big Wheels with neighbors, and on bikes with sisters. The blue bike with training wheels and a white seat that matched Janet’s, as the two of us learned to balance and move. Then the brown 3-speed that meant I was a “big kid.” Flying with Diane down steep hills and skirting around curves, standing up to pump my legs up and down to make it through the cemetery streets and back to the top of the hill where we would do it all again. Owning those streets. They were ours.
Playing Hide-N-Seek with our dog, Max. My dad would let Max off-leash, and Max would jet all over the entire place. My dad and I (and sometimes Diane) would hide when Max first disappeared over the hill, and we’d whistle until Max came back and found us. Eventually Max was so good at finding our hiding places that we learned to trick him. From a hiding place, we’d watch him look for us in the copse of bushes (or wherever), and once he disappeared over the hill again, we’d head straight to those bushes (or wherever), knowing he wouldn’t re-check. It wasn’t long before Max caught on. He never did his searching systematically, but he did learn that we may end up hiding in a place that had been clear the minute before.
The one copse of bushes was across from a family of gravestones surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. I would enter that fenced area as if I were visiting. Then I would depart, and I’d wend my way into the midst of the bushes. I would imagine building a fort within the bushes. I’d collect acorns to eat, and the nearby fenced area would be a part of my neighborhood—not a good place to live since it provided so little shelter, but still a clearly-defined spot for something, and clearly something of a fancy sort with a fence like that.
Of course, now it just seems sorta crazy, all that money and time and energy spent on a wrought-iron fence to demarcate the lines between this group of graves and all the other graves in the cemetery.
On occasion, when my sisters or I would decide to run away, I always imagined I’d sleep in the cemetery, probably in that same imagined fort-in-the-bushes. I knew I had to eat, and my realistic side was not willing to count on acorns; but there were neighbors who gave me candy every time I visited, so that need seemed covered. My running away never lasted more than 15 or 30 minutes, so my plans were never executed beyond collecting candy from neighbors, but the plans were there—a possible escape if it ever came to that.
Then there was Jenny. Her grave was in a section of the cemetery we’d pass by on our way downtown. (Did I mention we always walked through the cemetery on our way downtown?) There was a wall (to sit on or walk on, from my perspective back then) and steps, and there was Jenny’s grave. The headstone had Jenny herself depicted. I believe she was holding flowers. Her figure seemed kinda like figures of Mary sculpted in stone. An epitaph was on her grave, though I don’t remember anymore what it said. I believe it was sad. Jenny was young when she died. But her grave had been there throughout my lifetime.
Sometimes on Halloween we’d dare each other to walk through the cemetery. Sometimes we actually did so. It was never scary, but sometimes we pretended it was scary.
One time my sister Janet and one of her friends had some man flash them. I didn’t really know what it was all about at the time, but I gleaned enough that once I learned about flashing, many years later, I could put it together.
Teenagers would often drink in the cemetery, and I’m sure they did way more than drinking. That was never my style, though I believe a couple of my siblings were into this scene over the years. I saw signs of various vices as a kid—the cigarette butts and empty bottles or cans strewn near Jenny’s grave. Those steps, the wall—they lent themselves to company, way more than the wrought-iron fenced area on the other side of the graveyard. Yup, Jenny was set up for young company.
When I saw Poltergeist, I thought it should mean more to me because of living next to a graveyard. But that was really a put-on, and I was never scared or bothered when thinking about the dead bodies in the ground just past my backyard.
Growing up next to a graveyard did not mean I knew death better or that the reality of it was part of my life in some organic, natural way. Growing up next to a graveyard was, to me, growing up next to a giant park, available for recreation and imagination and fun. I wonder if death was actually less real to me than to most people. After all, the people who didn’t grow up next to graveyards most likely view graveyards as sacred, as mysterious, as separate from everyday life. And this view seems to conflate the burial site with death itself, not in a dishonest or cheap way, but in a way that grants the space of the graveyard the power to stand in for death–to make the overwhelming and intangible a bit more approachable, a bit more manageable.
Cemeteries don’t signify in the same way for me. Still, I wonder if there’s something good about the way I grew up. I hope that it was more than childhood cluelessness that I now have to overcome. That would just suck; it’s one thing to overcome negative childhood experiences, but my cemetery experiences tend to be pretty wonderful memories.
Hmmm. The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe it just doesn’t matter that I grew up next to a graveyard, beyond the graveyard being a setting for a whole bunch of good memories that have a kind of ironic tinge to them now. And maybe that’s how all good childhood memories are. Maybe they all seem both ironically sad and impossibly but wonderfully hopeful. And maybe that’s okay.
Maybe the lesson of growing up next to a graveyard is simply one of acceptance. Not blind acceptance, but acceptance that the ironically sad and the impossibly but wonderfully hopeful can go together–can even, somehow, be one and the same.