Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mother's Day

When I arrived mid-morning two Sundays ago at Philadelphia's Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, I found myself in the midst of a traffic jam.

It makes sense as soon as you think about it that Mother's Day would be a big day for a graveyard, but I still was taken aback. There were cars everywhere, inching along the narrow paths past their stationary fellows, whose occupants were milling around nearby headstones. It was like an oddly morbid tailgate party.

My mother was sitting in my passenger seat; or more precisely, her urn was. For the past two years, she, or it, had been sitting on a shelf in my home office, patiently awaiting final disposition. You're not supposed to take that long to bury someone, but my plans to meet at Holy Sepulchre with Uncle John, her younger brother, kept getting put off for one reason or another. We're both busy, he lives in Maine, and he's had some health problems lately. The funeral service in Pittsburgh had been timely; this last step, not so much.

As I'd learned a couple of days earlier, her interment wasn't going to happen today, either. I had finalized all the arrangements with the sales manager, only to have him call me back and explain that it's against canon law for Catholic cemeteries to bury people on Sundays. "But I told you we were coming May 8!" I protested. "I didn't realize you meant Sunday," he said: "How about Saturday?" "No, my uncle and I both have conflicts. And we can't do it Monday, either." Eventually, we agreed that my uncle and I would just visit the grave on Sunday and leave it at that. The cemetery could handle the actual interment later, at its convenience.

I weaved my way through the cars and met John at the cemetery office. The sales manager took us out to the McDevitt plot — McDevitt being my mother's side of the family. John noticed the headstone was a little askew. "It probably got bumped by our mower," the manager said. They'd nudge it back, he assured us. His unconcerned tone bothered me. Does this happen often? Are Holy Sepulchre's tombstones perpetually spinning like turnstiles, getting pinged and dinged by disrespectful groundskeepers hot-dogging its fleet of John Deeres?

My mother in her boy-snogging days.
The manager left. Uncle John laid lilacs on the grave and we took a few pictures. I tried seting the urn in front of the headstone, but it looked silly, so I moved it aside.

I prodded John for recollections of his big sister. "She was always out on dates and bringing boys home," he said. "They'd be necking in the parlor, and I'd sneak downstairs with my Brownie camera and try to take a snapshot. She'd get so mad! 'Johnny, go back to bed!' she'd yell, and throw something at me. I'd run back upstairs ..."

I liked that story.

Back at the cemetery office, we made arrangements to have my mother's name engraved on the headstone. "Do you want the whole last name?" the manager asked. "Why wouldn't we?" "Well, just so you know, we charge by the letter."

I imagined shortening mom's inscription to "M. STHLDR." to save a few bucks. If anything would rouse the wrath of her spirit to haunt my every moment, it would be that. "The whole name, please," I said. It came out to a little under $900. The manager promised they would spell STUHLDREHER right.

The Swan Pond at the Morris Arboretum.
In the afternoon, John and I went to the Morris Arboretum. My mother would have loved it there — all those beautiful, well-tended gardens. It was a glorious day. The sky was a shade of blue so sharp you could slice tomatoes with it.

Near the end of our visit, we came across a bronze statue of St. Francis, my mother's favorite saint. He was seated cross-legged with his left arm outstretched. Someone had put a sprig of real flowers in his hand.

As we admired it, a butterfly landed on the flowers. There was a moment of utter stillness. The butterfly flexed its wings a couple of times, then flitted off. I suppose if you were the sort of person who believed in such things, you could consider it a sign.