(written October, 2013)
In an educational exercise one October morning, I had been instructed to describe the day’s color. The word which immediately surfaced was lucid. That afternoon was no different: the individual leaves on the arms of autumn trees viewable in high-definition against the clearest blue sky, still dry air, and a sun nearly painful in its brightness, closer to white than yellow. With my mother in the passenger seat next to me, I turned left into the ten-car parking lot of the monument showroom. While our task of picking out the headstone for my recently-deceased father’s grave was…well, a grave one, our moods were as light as the Indian-summer day. I rolled my eyes sardonically, noting that instead of a concrete curb barrier at the head of each parking spot, there was a sample granite grave marker, complete with engraved names and dates. “That’s creepy. I feel like I’m parked on a body,” I said. She laughed good-naturedly: we had suffered enough, and our family was an irreverent lot, even in mourning. “Shall we take our coffee in with us, or leave it in the car?” She asked. We decided to carry our eco-friendly travel mugs inside; I had made it at home, strong and subtly hazel-nutty, and this chore could undoubtedly take a while.
We strolled casually towards the showroom door, taking in our surroundings: this would not be anywhere we’d visit often. Life-sized, bone-white statues of the Holy Family flanked the glass doors, while off to the left a grassy patch incongruously boasted a rough wagon, a slatted-wood cart on wheels, full of cascading flowers. The prairie meets Jerusalem meets the 21st century, where nearby a mega-watt digital sign runs a silent, solemn commercial of sober but satisfied faces. A highly-polished marker on the ground near the door revealed that the business was opened in 1969, the year I was born. The still-living founder’s face was etched onto the stone, and I imagined that this must be an eerie sight for his family. I reached for the heavy door and ushered my mother inside.
We stepped into a wind-chiming, welcoming store, devoid of any discernible scent, hushed but not cold in atmosphere. High-ceilings and full walls of windows made the space seem whitewashed on such a sunny day, almost cheerful. The first visible items were tchotchkes: “God Bless the USA” bumper stickers, Swarovski-crystal one-decade rosaries: “great for travel!” Pewter car-visor clips saying “Bless this trucker” or “Drive safely, someone loves you!” A bowling angel attached to a lapel pin came with a poem about getting closer to a 300 game. Further in, larger and heavier items began to appear: garden statues of St. Francis of Assisi, in his humble robe, gently regarding the birds and animals around him, and small fiberglass benches, designed to look like stone, just big enough for one seat and the diminutive angel perched on the armrest. Here, we were approached by a tall, handsome woman about my mother’s age with a gentle smile and a decidedly tentative “are you ready for any help?”
Since we were ready for help, having no idea how to begin the process of choosing our headstone, we introduced ourselves to Marie, who happened to be the wife of the founder. I decided against asking her if it was unsettling to see her husband’s face on what amounted to a grave-marker when she walked in to work each day. Marie led us with her outstretched arm across the store to an interior wall on which hung dozens of heavy granite rectangles, fully engraved with names, dates, etchings of photographic quality, hearts and flowers. The samples ranged from the size of a large book to the size of a small bed. Some had rough, geography-class-rock borders with quartz-like sparkles, while others were polished like a kitchen countertop with salt and pepper just beneath the glossy surface. Colors ranged from wet putty to the amber of rich Oktoberfest ale, to azure with milky, translucent chips, to the blackest black night, with or without the accompanying stars. Here, by some silent mutual agreement, we became solemn. Somewhere between the veteran’s insignias and the teenaged girl’s senior picture, scratched artfully into her eternal social-media profile picture, we adopted the hushed manner appropriate for those in the presence of the tenderest of souls: the too-soon departed. And isn’t anyone who is loved and missed taken away too soon?
Marie, in her conservatively leopard-printed cardigan and fashionable metallic flats (right up my mother’s alley!) expertly and quietly described our particular options: we couldn’t have a raised stone because my dad’s grave was in the first row near the road at the cemetery. That was fine with me – I had always associated raised headstones with horror movies and Halloween lawn decorations. I was in favor of a low-key, flush-to-the-grass marker. I made a joke about the word “flush,” because my dad’s gravesite happens to be near the restrooms at Holy Cross Cemetery. Marie threw her head back and laughed. We did, however, have size and color options. When my mom asked me for my opinion, I suggested that she choose what she thought Dad would like. Then, I remembered that this one four-inch thick slab of granite would mark the grave which eventually would hold both of my parents. “You’ll be under it too, one day, so pick whatever you think is pretty,” I said. My mom chuckled in acknowledgment as she sipped her coffee, surveying the sample wall, and she and Marie, being contemporaries, opined conspiratorially about stone colors, fonts, and graphics. I deliberately retreated, catching only fragments: Marie, her polished, square fingertips grazing my mom’s elbow and her nose wrinkled, “I hope you don’t like the gold lettering on the Norwegian blue, it just doesn’t look as nice,” and my mom graciously acknowledging that “you sure get lots of ideas by looking at these!”
Half an hour later, in an office with a sage-hued desktop constructed of the same highly-polished granite as the gravestones, we faced Marie as she stood over the left shoulder of a lanky young man in Ray-Ban glasses whose thin fingers raced across the computer keyboard, projecting a mock-up of our headstone onto the wall behind them. After we nodded and murmured our assent, Zack plinked the print button like an ebony piano key and left the room wordlessly. My mom had chosen all the specifics: color, font, a wedding ring with the date of their marriage to be etched in between the names Hap and Dolores, the sentiment “Together Forever with God” at the foot. After signing approval on the invoice, we spent at least twenty minutes chatting further with Marie as if we were long-time family friends.
We all agreed that we enjoyed drip coffee from the pot better than the now-popular K-cups. She and my mom showed each other photos of their grandchildren, a new generation of grandmothers pulling out their iPhones instead of school-photographs. Marie was elated to learn a Nordstrom Rack store had just opened nearby. We could have chatted for hours; we had fun. As she walked us out, back through the store which somehow struck the perfect balance between dignified and cheerful, we agreed to come back soon and shop for less weighty items. There were ornaments and freshly cut flowers for sale, memorial cards for pets and decorative blankets to be tossed casually over the back of a sofa. Racks of cards, religious and secular, stood sentry near seasonally scented candles in pumpkin-shaped glass jars. As we climbed back into my SUV, our empty coffee cups standing upright in my ample handbag, my mom thanked me, remarking in an echo to my own thoughts about what a positive experience it had been. “We’re doing really well,” I thought to myself.
Hours later, driving home alone from a group tennis lesson which had produced equal parts sweat and laughter, an inexplicable and immediate grief welled up inside me and burst forth into the approaching dusk as I sobbed, suddenly and wetly, at sixty-five miles an hour. I still felt that the day, the task completed with my mom, had been fun. But a practical voice in my brain reminded me that I had just picked out my parents’ headstone, and what an obscene chore that was. I missed my dad viscerally; more than that, I realized that at some point in my future, I would walk back inside that showroom’s heavy glass doors, alone or maybe with one of my sisters, to inform them that the final year of the second-deceased could now be engraved onto the Norwegian blue granite she had chosen herself on a lovely October day. I wondered if Marie would still be there, and I thought of good, strong coffee and my mom’s smile, and as I gripped the steering wheel, my knuckles white at ten and two, I wept in fat tears and keening sounds like a child; a child who has lost her parents somewhere.
(written October, 2013)