Monday, September 12, 2011

Yaaa, We're Going to the Cemetery

The title of this piece should give you some idea how little I got out as a kid. From birth to age 13, my world was bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Bushwick Avenue, Eastern Parkway, and Saratoga Avenue...pretty much to school and back home. On weekends and summers we had a bit more freedom and would head for the wilds of Highland Park in Jamaica, ride to Crossbay Boulevard on our bikes, or spend a glorious day at Coney Island or Rockaway Beach. This provincial existence was broken up only by rare trips to places we didn't normally go. One of them was the cemetery.

My father's family was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery located in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Founded in 1849, Holy Cross occupied a large, park-like plot of land dotted with shade trees, grassy hills, and of course, burial plots. Some of the better known residents there include the great Brooklyn Dodger first baseman, Gil Hodges; the larger than life gambler, Diamond Jim Brady, and the infamous bank robber, Willie Sutton. We used the entrance on Tilden Avenue, an impressive structure that set the mood for the seriousness of purpose for visitors. Usually my father and my Uncle Joe would make this pilgrimage once a year to visit their mother Lucy, sister Mary who died tragically young, and other family members.

After the brothers braced themselves with a few shots of Fleishman's Rye (which doubles as a handy disinfectant) and beer chasers, the three of us would pile into Uncle Joe's two-tone green 1953 Chevy Bel Air and the adventure began. I sat glued to the window as we drove down Eastern Parkway, past Prospect Park and finally into Flatbush. In the Fifties, Flatbush was almost country-like, and inhabited by mostly Jewish families living in neat, one-family houses. Lawns were new to me and I remember thinking these people must be rich to live like this. When we arrived, it took a few minutes of wrong turns, muttered curses, and fevered searching for the name of the person at the end of the row of tombstones that marked the place where our family lay.

Our plots were in a remote corner of the cemetery, and there were few other visitors around when we paid our respects. After a quick prayer, I would be allowed to roam while my father and uncle spruced up the grave site. There were water spigots scattered around the property so that people could water the flowers they left on the graves of loved ones. I would amuse myself by finding an empty container, filling it with water, and then emptying it on the bushes planted on the nearby graves. I read the names and dates on the headstones and wondered why some people lived so long while others died so young. It seemed unfair. When I got older, the men would give their backs a break and permit me to plant whatever it was they had picked up at the florist's outside the cemetery gate. 

I always felt at peace in the cemetery. In the middle of bustling Brooklyn was this quiet oasis with trees and pathways winding between the headstones. Surprisingly, no noise intruded to disturb the sleeping residents. In their conversation in the car, my father and his brother complained about making these visits, but once they knelt down to pray, I could see a change come over them. Maybe they were thinking of their own mortality and how soon they would be resting under these stately oaks. The ride home was usually quieter than the ride there.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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