Sunday, July 12, 2009

the doll cemetary

On Sundays Grandee used to come, making the drive all the way out from the city. Each and every Sunday it was practically the same, she would arrive and have lunch with Nola and her parents and then right afterwards she would take Nola to the cemetery. Nola’s parents never went with them, not once. As soon as everyone had finished eating Kate would make herself busy clearing the table and doing the dishes while Graham muttered something about having a few things to take care of and headed off to his study. Grandee would sit at the table and announce loudly that she was heading off to the cemetery and taking Nola with her if anyone else was interested in coming. But no one ever was.

Grandee said over and over again that it was important someone from the family look after things at Ethan’s grave. She would often say to Nola, “Promise me that when I’m gone, when I’m there with your grandfather and our sweet Ethan, promise me Nola that you will come here and take care of us, will you do that for your old Grandee?” Nola always vowed she would, and Grandee would pronounce her a good girl.

The cemetery was barely half a mile from the house, on Ramsey Road, the same main road their little street was off of. It was a small graveyard, not much more than four acres. Once there had been a church next to it, and if you went into the woods at the back of the property beyond the last row of headstones you could see the old stone foundation, the granite slab steps leading to nothing more now than a patch of scrub oaks and young birch saplings surrounded by the stacked stones that once supported the church floor. “It must have been a small congregation,” Nola’s grandmother would often muse. “Not like the great cathedrals of Manhattan.”

During nice weather Nola and her grandmother would walk to the graveyard pulling an old Radio Flyer wagon full of gardening supplies and the flowers that Grandee always brought with her, week after week. On a few especially nice days when the weather was just right they’d even skip lunch with Kate and Graham and pack sandwiches instead, eating them picnic style on the grass beside Ethan’s grave while Grandee would talk to him like he could hear her. She’d tell him all about some cookies she’d baked that were his favorite, or about some boys she’d seen playing games in the park that were about his age and how she knows they would have been, “great friends.” Often Grandee would tell Ethan about Nola, about her accomplishments at school or how pretty she looked. She would try and get Nola to talk to him too, but Nola would find herself strangely tongue-tied there in front of her grandmother. Grandee would always say, “no matter, your sister’s just shy, but she loves you dearly, know that sweet Ethan.”

On holidays Grandee would bring special things to leave there, like a heart balloon for Valentine’s Day, flags for Fourth of July, a bunny statue for Easter, or a colorful paper turkey for Thanksgiving. On Christmas Grandee paid the cemetery staff to put a blanket of evergreens over Ethan’s grave. Even in the dead of winter she and Nola would make the trip to the cemetery, only they’d just go by car instead. If it was especially bitter or snowing out Grandee would make Nola stay in the car with the heat on. Nola would watch her grandmother through the foggy windshield as she dusted the snow off the headstone, bowing her head and quickly making the sign of the cross, that’s what she called it. Then Grandee would stand there a few moments, perfectly still, head bowed, eyes closed, lips moving. Nola asked her once what she was talking about to Ethan when she did that and Grandee answered snippily, “I’m not talking to your brother, child, I’m praying, which you’d know how to do if that mother of yours ever sent you to Sunday School.”

Nola’s parents didn’t believe in God. Her father said he went to confession and mass every week until he was seventeen. Then his father, Granda, Grandee’s husband, said it was up to him. He never set foot in a church again. When Ethan was born Grandee told Nola that she begged her parents to have him baptized but “sadly they’d have none of it.”

But when Ethan died, when he was in the hospital before they turned off the machines, Grandee said she brought in a priest to give the last rites; that’s what they do if you are going to die so you can get into heaven, she’d told Nola. Grandee said, “So now sweet Ethan is our angel, he’s with his heavenly father and the Holy Mother will take care of him until it’s our time to join him, God willing.” Nola had asked her once what would make God unwilling, but for some reason Grandee got mad and told her, “that’s a question you should ask your heathen father, that is.”

Even when Grandee was mad, though, Nola liked the way she talked. In fact sometimes she even sounded better when she was flustered or angry. Grandee had what her mother called an Irish brogue, an musical accent from when she was raised in Ireland. The lilt of her phrasing made everything sound magical and believable, you would accept anything she said as inscrutable truth. When Nola was with Grandee she almost could believe there was a God and that Ethan was with Him, looking down on them all.

At Christmas time once a year Grandee was allowed to take Nola to the local Catholic church for a special service. They had a life-size creche set up in front of the chapel and everyone would stop and look at the figures before going inside. Nola could imagine that the baby Jesus was Ethan, being watched over by Mary and Joseph. She told her grandmother that once and it made her cry. Nola never knew when something she said about Ethan was going to make someone cry or smile, it was very hard to predict.

When she was very little and still played with dolls Nola would pretend that different ones were Ethan and that she was his mommy. Then he would get very sick or fall off of something really high up, and he'd die. Nola would pretend to cry and be very sad, sometimes she did it so well that she shed real tears and everything. After that she would carefully put the dead doll in a box and place little toys and trinkets all around it and slide it reverently under her bed. She would never take it out after that because once you were dead that was it, you couldn’t play anymore, you were stuck in the ground and couldn’t come out ever again, forever and ever.

Once when her mother found several of the dolls all boxed up in their pretend coffins, Nola had to tell her why they were all there under the bed and not in her doll basket. She thought Kate might get mad or cry...or perhaps even smile, it was one of those times she couldn't tell what reaction she was going to get. But Kate didn't do any of that. Instead she just closed her eyes real tight, scrunched up tight like she didn't want to see anything around her, not the dolls, Nola, not anything. Then she left the room with out a word. Nola’s mother never looked under the bed again after that, and she never gave her any more dolls, either. But that was okay, there wasn't that much more room under the bed anyway.


notSupermum said...

Another great installment. Grandee reminds me of my Nana, who would call atheists 'raving heathens'. Thank you K x

martine frampton said...

I love that you have captured the way young children come to an understanding death, very perceptive.
thanks for sharing

Mervat said...

This is just wonderfully written and touching. This story is now like a movie playing in my mind that I have to pause until the next installment. Well done.

Anonymous said...

It is useful to try everything in practice anyway and I like that here it's always possible to find something new. :)

Anonymous said...

It is useful to try everything in practice anyway and I like that here it's always possible to find something new. :)