Beautiful delicious sunlight pours down upon us poor Clevelanders on this frosty December morning. Sun cascades from everywhere down upon the ground speckled with tufts of snow. Clusters of frost cling to bare tree branches. It is December 22. This is the day after my Mom's Birthday. Yesterday she celebrated 101 years old.
Yesterday, I had promised that I would visit her. My Dad lies next to her in the graveyard bed on a hill overlooking a small woods and the vast mosaic of graves below marching out to the cemetery road. Somewhere down the hill from the final resting places of my parents are the graves for my Uncle and my Aunt.
My Uncle and Aunt had married in the early 1930's, a man of a German background joined in holy Matrimony with a woman from Ireland. That is a great merger of passion with order. And then my Uncle's brother Charlie had met my Aunt's sister Nora. The two fell in love and married and from that union came us three brothers and two sisters.
I had wanted to visit Mom on her birthday and bring her some presents including gifts for Christmas. Dad too would receive his share for the holiday season. But as always some law business intruded and I failed to arrive on December 21.
But today, December 22, I have sworn to myself and them that I will drive out Broadway Avenue and then curve east along Miles Avenue, turning right through the large wrought-iron gates of the cemetery. I would swing down the long winding road to their final home, driving carefully along the two miles of half paved asphalt ribbon. I must go slowly. I would never want to have an accident here and somehow perish. For all eternity I would have to explain to everyone, as they laughed and jeered, the circumstances of my car death in a cemetery.
My over-size black Lucerne makes its way along Broadway past East 55th and then the church home of Reverend Mike Frank. (He is not-Catholic but he is okay since he accepts transubstantiation for the bread and wine.) Then I try to find a store. I want to give my parents some gift. I am thinking of flowers, but there is no shop selling these.
So I stop at Walgreens. I have no idea what I shall find here, maybe a little green fir tree in a pot or maybe even some flowers. Instead all I can find are picked-over Christmas bits and pieces. These are the remnants, the rejected, now going for half price.
I look along the aisle shelves and try to find something suitable. I spot a small model church made from wood with a single black steeple. It is very Protestant. It will have to do. I offer weak apologies to Pope Francis.
Beside the tree are some Santa stockings, with fur lined by red velvet. They are so small, but they will have to do. I grab one for Mom and one for Dad. Next I think of the Christmas Trees we had as children. Dad always purchased a tall live one and this would grace our front living room where we all gathered to decorate it. So I find some shiny decorations on the Walgreen thrift shelf and select a golden star for Dad and a silver-tinfoil angel for Mom.
I head toward the front of the store past the long candy counter with bars I remember from childhood at a nickel that are now inflated to a dollar twenty five as a special sale price. Mom loved Hershey bars filled with almonds. She would bite off a piece and slowly munch it, enjoying each chocolate piece. So I will buy two Hershey bars for both Mom and Dad.
I use my Fifth-Third purple credit card and wrack up a Holiday sale of Twenty Seven Dollars and ninety three cents. The sales girl, young and Black, expresses, "Happy Holidays."
"Merry Christmas," I say in return. Then always the lawyer, I query.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," she responds, probably thinking. "The customer is always right even this ancient white male specimen before me."
"Are you allowed to say, 'Merry Christmas'?"
"No," she sadly explains. "It is against company policy." Poor babe of Jesus, only three days until his birth, and we cannot say his name of "Christ." That seems like progress for a politically correct society
But back to my journey. Back to that car and then to the cemetery and past the main office at the cemetery entrance. It is then about two miles along the half-muddy single lane road.
I reach the turn off at the bottom of the hill where the main road continues on. This turnoff road to the right winds a huge arc up to the top of the hill at the back side of the plots where Mom and Dad are waiting.
Last time I had come this way was last winter and the whole area was covered with several inches of thick snow. I had tried but could not walk thru the snow and view the names on the graves since many are sunk into the ground beneath the snow. The writing on the other upright snows was also encrusted with ice and snow and I could not read those names either.
Also as I last year had driven on the snowy roads, my car wheels kept slipping and I feared I would slide off the road into a ravine. Last year when I had finally pressed the brake at the top of the hill, black car would not stop and I found myself slipping faster and faster down the hill. So I never did find Mom and Dad and never did pray some "Hail Mary's" with them.
But now this year I am convinced I will find my parents graves. I vow I will present my Christmas trinkets. So I park at the top of the hill, dismount from the car, and count down the straight rows of the graves.
I remember that Mom and Dad were in the seventh row from the road. All I have to do is walk along that seventh row and I should find them. But twenty minutes later, I have walked that number seven line twice already with no luck.
"Where is Mom? Where is Dad?" The question echoes and re-echoes in my mind.
I find an "O'Brien," a "Moran," some unpronounceable Polish names, and even a "Cusack" which was Mom's maiden Name. I cannot find a "Meissner." Now I am really bewildered and lost.
"Am I wrong about the seventh row?" So I wander along other rows.
I stare at the symbols carved into the faces of the tomb stones. Anne, my sister, had invested in some Gaelic and Irish symbols for Mom's and Dad's sunken grave markers. Surely that will help. But no success. I think about all the white concrete graves I have visited in Viet Nam. They do so much better there with remembering their dead. Each person has a large oblong above-the-ground house with a huge high stone at the end, announcing the occupant, the important life dates, and other information. There is always a nice photograph of the individual permanently mounted on each grave. It is so easy there to walk along in the cemetery and review the name of each remembered person and examine the photograph.
So I meander haltingly further down toward the right side of the hill. I discover rows with just sunken flat tomb stones. No erect stone markers. I try to remember from before the trees that were near my parents' graves. I try to recall some high standing grave monuments, but my mind will not focus.
I roam pointlessly another twenty minutes. Soon it will be time for me to return to the grinding toils of the law office.
I find one grave where the stone has been pulled from the ground and overturned. Could that be Mom and Dad's crypt? Like Jesus on Easter morning, perhaps my parents are no longer trapped here.
But the stone inscription is for somebody else. Then I try more reading of embedded tomb stones. The ones deep in the earth are covered with layers of decaying leaves. I try to brush them aside with my shoe. I know that is disrespectful to sweep my slimy shoe across the stone face, But then I almost slip and fall. Is this a divine warning? How would that be?
I can see the mocking Cleveland Plain Dealer Headline on the obituary page: "Lawyer slips, falls, and dies, hitting his head on grave marble." How would that be an honorable way to die? Even in hell, I can see them all chuckling at that.
I bend over and that hurts my back as my hand tries to brush aside the soggy leaves.
Almost an hour has passed in this fruitless hunt. Perhaps I should drive back the two miles to the headquarters building and ask about my Parents' location. But what do I say? "I have lost my parents' grave? Can you help me?" What a stupid admission. Bad enough when I have to admit to my car passengers that I have lost the way and they taunt me by asking, "Where is my GPS?" That is what I need now--a cemetery GPS.
I have been carrying the offerings for Mom and Dad in a thin white plastic bag. This bag is already torn with gaping holes as I clutch the presents inside. I stagger back almost to where I had started an hour ago. Now I decide to go on the opposite direction, but the grave stones run out by the road. I shall circle down below onto the plain and cross over a muddy slippery trail, hoping that something will look recognizable from under the hill.
No good luck. Furthermore, it is now too late to return to the cemetery headquarters and get the site information. I must leave. I will call my sister Anne, confess my ignorance, and ask for her help for a future trip.
I get back into my car and set down the bag of Christmas items in the front passenger seat. There is the little wooden church and no foundation for it. I cannot hang the tiny red socks. The ornaments have found no tree. The two Hershey bars stare up at me. I shall tear open the wrapper on one, crack off chocolate pieces, and munch those.
Soon there is no candy bar left and I am still hungry for the delicious sweet. I suffer in guilt for few minutes before tearing off the second wrapper. I promise I will eat one small piece, but then another, and another, and soon that candy bar has disappeared as well.
"Sorry, Mom," I confess, "I shall bring more next time."
I drive down the large hill on its far side. I look back through the rearview mirror and repeat, "Is my Mom still there? Is my Dad still there?"
No. They no longer need these cold holes in the ground. They left here. God has welcomed both of them long ago. I have even dreamed of my Mother standing there in a meadow in one of her nice dark dresses covered with tiny printed flowers. She is asking me, "When are you coming, Joseph?"
I think back and regret that I did not spend more time with Mom and more time with Dad. There is no way to go back, and enjoy their company. There is no more opportunity for quiet walks in the Euclid Park or sitting on the wooden benches above the creek and enjoying the tumbling waters.
So I wind up this essay by giving you some expensive lawyer advice. If your Mom is still alive , call her right now. Make a simple call and listen to her gripes and complaints of pains.
Visit your Dad if he is still among the living. Give him a few minutes of your valuable listening time. But for me, it is too late.
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