This reminds me of the time I wrote about the sublime Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum, about a similar sort of tension between how I actually felt, and how I was supposed to act. At the exhibition, when I looked at some pages from a satirical homemade farmer's newsletter - complete with deadpan anecdotes and drawings of chickens - I laughed out loud. People looked at me as if I had urinated in the exhibition hall. This was Art. It was Serious. Did I not understand that One Does Not Laugh at Art? This idea creates a tension for me in a modern art museum; if a piece of art causes a spontaneous welling up of joy, I must either crush it down with shame or accept that there is a social price I must pay if I choose to express it. I personally think Cornell was trying to be funny, so I paid the social price and I laughed.
The tension in a cemetery is even worse. Cemeteries are often full of newly bereft, crying people. Most people who are there to visit the dead are full of conflicting emotions, the chiefest among them guilt. Guilt for not visiting more often, guilt for not being more attentive (or even nice) to the person when they were alive, guilt for not loving the dead person "enough". I can think up dozens of reasons one might feel like crap in a cemetery. However, guilt is only half the story; the tension wells up when guilt collides with joy, pleasure, good humor, and laughter.
The picnic started out pretty seriously. We found Grandpa's plot quickly, laid out the blanket, unpacked the spread, and we ate, while my partner told me stories. Victorian Entertaining includes a "Bill of Fare for a Picnic of Forty Persons ... a joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, two ribs of lamb, two shoulders of lamb, four roast fowls, two roast ducks, one ham, one tongue, two veal-and-ham pies, two pigeon pies, six medium-sized lobsters, one piece of collared calf's head, eighteen lettuces...four dozen cheesecakes...six pounds of butter..." so on and so forth. My picnic was a simple loaf of bread, a little plastic container of mustard, a packet of sliced ham, another packet of sliced swiss, a small plastic tub of homemade cucumber salad, and a fancy bottle of blood orange soda. We ate adjacent to, but not on top of, the dearly departed:
There's a nice, sentimental epitaph written at the bottom of the headstone: "We love you sweethearts." It works no matter how you read it - whether the living are addressing the dead, or the dead are addressing the living. I thought about my feelings for my sweetheart while he talked to me about his grandparents. He loves them, and I love him. That's why we were there, to honor that. When the stories ran out, we packed up, and as we walked back down the lawn toward the car, my sweetheart showed me some of the other headstones he'd spotted on the way up. He know that I have a passion for the written word, especially in signs, monuments, and other non-prose art forms, such as graffiti, and on the headstones (all of them flush with the ground to facilitate mowing) was a very particular sort of writing. Each epitaph, carefully, carefully composed, told a micro story - about who the departed was, how the departed felt about the living, how the living felt about the departed, or what their hopes were for the future.
As a writer in this era, I think I'm supposed to be ashamed of sentimentality. In order to write anything of note, I'm supposed to absent myself from my writing, write objectively, and have some big important thing to say, with lots of irony. Sentimentality is for selling romance novels and greeting cards; true art cannot be sentimental. Listen to any of the literati mocking The Bridges of Madison County, and you'll hear it, that mockery and belittling of sentiment. That I have internalized some of this condescending attitude is why I feel tender and exposed when I admit to you that "Grandpa Extrordinaire" started my tears welling up. It's misspelled, for whatever reason, and that made me think of earnest, childish greeting cards made with cheap construction paper, crayon, and unashamed love.
It's my earnest, unashamed love that admits how the epitaph, "You are my sunshine," made the welling tears start to flow; I've always been a mushy mix-tape girl, and the mixes I make for my sweetheart are usually full of light and sunshine metaphors, because the first thing I noticed about him was how alert and alive he was, and the brightness of his expression. When I read this epitaph, I saw my own potential future sorrow, and it slew me. When my sweetheart saw me taking pictures, he escorted me on down the hill and pointed out another headstone he'd spotted on the way up. I looked at it, and crab-stepped to the next one, and to the next one, and with each epitaph, I slowly began to understand how much joy and good humor and delightful mystery there was in the National Cemetery. I'll bet you a hundred dollars this next guy was a lot of fun, and I can imagine him staggering back to his ship, drunkenly, with a smile on his face, and his sailor hat askew:
Next, I found a couple of happy gamblers. I hope that Mrs. Domohowski spent her extra five years at Foxwoods with friends who helped her remember the good times with Mr. Domohowski.
After we were finished browsing the epitaphs on the gently sloping lawn (imagine that these are the folks who wanted to live off base, in roomier digs in the sprawling suburbs of some distant military town), we headed over to a columbarium, which is where they put the cremated folks who maybe didn't mind so much, living in base housing during their tour of duty. In the columbarium, the atmosphere was much more intimate, with the names packed in cheek by jowl, like sailors in hammocks, or soldiers in a row of tents. I know I'm mixing my metaphors, but it reminded me of a dive bar on a military base, with fresh, young wise-guys and wise-girls in uniform, swaying on barstools, each trying to out-drink, outwit, or out-joke the next guy, with the occasional quiet, poetic soul sitting on the fringes with a club soda.
If I have offended with my cemetery hijinks, as I offended the patrons at the Joseph Cornell exhibition by laughing out loud at the art, I ask you to think intuitively for a minute about the information you are given in a cemetery - not by other attendees, but by the cemetery itself, and by the dead. The grounds of the National Cemetery are beautiful; do you imagine the sweeping grandeur of the lawns and the view is meant to suck you in and spit you out in five minutes? Do you imagine that the stately, welcoming design of the grounds says "Keep out?" The dead choose to lie here, and they want to be visited. Do you imagine they'd go to all the trouble of ceremonies and memorial details so they'll be ignored, or only inspire a guilty five-minute slink across the grass, a five-minute bowing of the head? No, they want you to stay for a while and appreciate the view. And from what I can tell from the words they've written on their memorials, they want you to cry with them. They want you to leave small tokens to mark your visit--beach stones, carnival glass, flowers, mardi gras beads. And a lot of them want you to laugh with them, or they wouldn't have written such sweet and funny things on their graves. Pay the social price, if you have to, and laugh. Please, laugh.
I left the cemetery loving the sentimentality of the dead--their bravery, their panache, their good cheer, and their obvious value to their families and to one another. I left the cemetery unashamed of my tears, unashamed of my laughter, and a little in love with the City of the Dead.
On Sunday, I had a picnic with Grandma and Grandpa Vabri, and it looked like this:
In memory of Vincent and Islea Vabri.
I wish I had had the chance to meet you.
I wish I had had the chance to meet you.