Through my family room window, I caught the movement of a car in the drive next door. This is not a usual occurrence; "next door" is a cemetery. Not much going on with those neighbors, generally. Every Tuesday during mowing season, the guy with the industrial earmuffs guides his John Deere respectfully around the markers. Any more activity than that usually means they are fixing to plant a new neighbor.
The nondescript white sedan negotiated half the circle drive in the graveyard. It pulled to a stop just shy of a spot where a crypt-shaped rectangle of recently replaced sod was evident; a green wire tripod sporting the tired remains of a funeral spray stood sentinel at one end of the patch of yellowed grass. A woman got out of the car and opened the trunk. From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell exactly how old she was. Older. Over sixty…under eighty. She was tall and lanky, sportily dressed in a pair of slim black trousers, a t-shirt and cropped jacket. Not stylish, but not outlandishly outdated. She looked practical and unfussy. A woman on a mission.
From the yawning boot of her car, she extracted a triangular vase—the kind with the sharp point made to poke into possibly unyielding consecrated ground. It held a big pink flower…Fresh? Silk? I couldn’t tell. Any more than I could tell why I couldn’t take my eyes off the little scene. I was held captive by the wondering… Who lay in that all-too-fresh grave, and who was he to her? How would she conduct her visit?
Would she remove the old dead plant, hold it for a moment with a tear in her eye, tuck it solemnly into the trunk? Would she tenderly sink the new offering in the dirt, tap it upright, fuss a bit with the placement? Would she kneel by the grave, hold out her hand as if to touch the loved one below, close her eyes and let the tears silently flow down her cheeks? In short, would she behave as I do, on those less and less frequent occasions when my parents’ sense of duty possesses me and drags my unwilling feet to the gravesides of my dear departed?
She did not. She stabbed the point of the new vase into the ground, strode to the other end of the grave and uprooted the old, faded wreath. Nearly pitched it into the trunk, then took a second look and retrieved some small pieces—baby’s breath, perhaps—and tucked them into the new planter on either side of the big pink flower. She spoke; I pondered the monologue. Was she describing the lovely new plant to the dead loved one? Telling that person how things had been going since he went away? Or she could merely have been ticking things off her errand list—so calm and unruffled was she. Focused and businesslike. Try as I might, I could not spot a hint of a sigh or a tear.
As she drove away, for a moment, I envied this woman, this stranger, this person I don’t even know, and upon whose private moment I should not have been spying. I almost wished I could be like her…so reserved, so matter-of-fact and in control when peering into the great void, searching for some trace of a loved one gone away.
No, I told myself with a sniff. She seemed cold and unfeeling; I am not that, and don’t ever want to be. But, truly, it was like watching a silent movie without subtitles. It’s not good policy to make judgments based on stolen three-minute film-clips with no sound. Below her unruffled surface, perhaps she’s as soppy and sentimental as I am, but she keeps those untidy emotions under control. Even when she’s alone…or thinks she is.
Silly, I suppose, to play guessing games with someone else’s grief. But perhaps I needed the diversion…from the ache of loss and welling of tears that threatened to overwhelm me as I struggled not to imagine myself in that woman’s shoes.