I’ve read that one of the most common pilgrimages is the graveside visit. Just about all the strands of pilgrimage are present: the call to leave ordinary life, the need to pay homage, the crossing of a threshold, the act of sacrifice or penance, the return home. I would also add that pilgrimage—at least for me—also thrusts you into what seems to be another time zone, somewhere between past and present and future. Which is certainly true when I drive across that threshold between the two stone pillars shaded by maple trees at the entrance to Riverside Cemetery in Yarmouth, Maine. I can feel my body chemistry change.
When I consider how far the cemetery has expanded on the other side the road, I think of the line from the Isaac Watts hymn I once sang growing up in Yarmouth: “Time, like an ever rolling stream.” Across the road was once part of a market garden I used to work in. I spent hours planting, cultivating, and harvesting beet greens, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, and squash where now marble and granite stones grow in evenly spaced rows. Even more jarring is that the stones lie under trees at least twenty years younger than I am, and which now stand some seventy-five to a hundred feet high.
Dead leaves and yellow daisies—images of death and life—punctuate the green and yellow grass as I drive around to the back of the cemetery overlooking the river—first past the newer stones, with laser prints of cars, boats, dogs, even photographs, and then by the older, lichen-dotted marble, granite, and slate stones that feature names I immediately put faces to: Snap Moxcey, my old barber, Frank Knight, my little league coach, Red Beal, my eighth-grade teacher and coach, parents of many of my former classmates.
It’s a gray, windy day, the first real day of autumn. An inky dragon-shaped cloud prowls the horizon. In the back of the cemetery, the maple trees look ancient, yet blush orange, like bashful teenagers. I park the car in front of our family lot and get out. I pull a few dead blossoms from the impatiens around my mother’s grave. I straighten the American flag in the VFW marker by my father’s flat bronze memorial, and then move over to clean the sticks and dead leaves from the memorial stone for my daughter, who died of cancer three years after Dad. Just up from Laurie’s stone, a similar granite stone honors my Grandmother Cleaves, who died less than a year after my daughter.
I recall that a year before Dad died, Hurricane Gloria knocked out power in parts of Maine for up to two weeks. I was living Down East at the time, and the day after the storm I got up early to drive Laurie to church camp for the weekend. I continued on to visit my mother and father, and when I pulled into the driveway I saw Dad standing in strewn leaves and fallen branches, trying to fry bacon and eggs on a charcoal grill. Nanny Cleaves, who’d come over from her apartment for a hot breakfast, stood at the window.
What I think of as pilgrimage time can not only expand memories but also compress them, so that today, the deaths of my father, my daughter, and my grandmother in less than four years become one moment that I recall as an emotional hurricane that made Gloria feel like a summer breeze. Throw in a divorce and remarriage during that time, and I can see now why I needed an anchor in all the winds that seemed to be assailing me.
Riverside cemetery, I realize, was and remains that anchor. I walk to the center of our lot, to the granite stone from the old cellar hole of my mother’s grandfather and grandmother’s house. I clear away fallen leaves around the stone with my foot, knowing full well that by tomorrow more leaves will take their place. Somehow, though, it’s important for me to tidy things up. Cemeteries, of course, are for the living not the dead: a way to show respect, certainly, but also to concretize the great mystery of death—shape it in stone, decorate it.
It took me three years after my daughter’s death to realize this. Laurie had not wanted to be buried; she’d wanted her ashes scattered. Once she died, however, her mother was adamant that she wanted our daughter’s ashes buried in her family’s plot in Steuben, Maine. Reeling from Laurie’s death, I couldn’t handle any more confrontation, so I said to go ahead, but that I was not going to go to any funeral, would not attend any graveside services. Three years of spending Memorial Days in this cemetery planting flowers, however, and summer evenings tending them, and autumn afternoons taking away pots and the St. Francis statue my brother, sister, and I added, made me realize that Laurie needed to be here as well—No, that’s not right. I realized that I needed Laurie to be here as well.
I run my hand over the creviced surface of the stone that once was part of the foundation of the old family homestead. This granite is thousands of years old, yet as with the rest of us, time will eventually wear it away. Still, it won’t be in my time, not in what I’ve heard called Chronos, or human time.
No, these stones, this cemetery, make me aware of what’s called Kairos, God’s time. (Isaac Watts again: “A thousand ages in Thy sight/Are like an evening gone…”) And maybe that’s what pilgrimages do: help us to leave, even briefly, ordinary time, and experience God’s time.
I walk to the bank, which overlooks the river that gives this cemetery its name. Through the birch and the oak and the scrub maple, I see the Royal River flowing into the harbor and then on a mile or so to Casco Bay. Starting somewhere in the middle of the state, its waters swirl past the house my parents lived in when Hurricane Gloria struck, down over the waterfall by the house in which I grew up, and into the boat yard, where my father kept his little sixteen foot boat, the boat I inherited when he died, the boat my daughter Laurie liked to go out on before she died. Now, almost thirty years later, I look through the trees to the river. I watch a cormorant fly down the channel and disappear around the bend toward the bay and the ocean, where I imagine my father and my daughter in that tiny boat, waiting for me to join them.