Mercy (Reposted from May 2016)
In my mother’s kitchen, and taped to the door of a cabinet where cups and plates are kept, is a laminated Catholic Diocese card. The card is divided into two distinct sections. The top part is titled The Corporal Works of Mercy. The “works” are ministrations to be made and observations to be kept in caring for –to name some of them–the poor, the sick, and the dead. The lower part describes The Spiritual Works of Mercy. This section addresses, among other items, forgiveness toward the wretched and prayers for the dead. The Diocese card made it clear that Mercy took the form of both Thought and Deed.
Earlier this week, after a spate of cool, damp weather had broken and given way to a string of balmy days, my mother proposed that we honor a late spring ritual and visit the local family graves to plant fresh flowers. I suggested we go that afternoon.
After lunch, with potting soil, digging implements, and a bucket for water loaded into the trunk of the car, we drove to the local nursery. In the greenroom there, I noted the planning process: the flowers had to be chosen to satisfy two parameters. First, they would be chosen by whether they thrive in sun or shade. This because one set of plots lay in the open, while another sat in a corner of the cemetery shaded by a cluster of maples.
The nursery conveniently labeled the plants for sun or shade. My father, my grandparents, and the two babies lost at birth–a sister and an aunt I had never known–received sun-hardy plants. In the more shaded plots, Uncle Joe, his wife Marie, and Cousin Joe would have the ones best suited for shade.
Then next item was to choose the bloom to fit the family member. The colors were chosen partly by gender: mostly blue and red for the men. Grandmother was to receive yellow moss roses because she had been fond of them. The babies’ headstones would have daintier blossoms, some alyssum in light pink or blue, and perhaps on each side of them a white variety for innocence. Uncle Joe and Cousin Joe would get cherry red impetunias, and for Aunt Marie—who died before I was born—snapdragons in pastels.
At the cemetery we met a temperate day. Between seasons and in a quiet hour before the bustle of crowds, it was pleasant and benign—much like the funeral directors who knew so well these grounds. As we carried the tools and flowers to the first gravesite, I was met with a stark sense of recognition; I decided my mother’s impulse to visit had been triggered by the same combination of scents and hues and breezes that prompted our visit last year: signals to plant that registered on her internal barometer, her farm girl’s instincts.
Despite the peaceful scene, Mother lamented the poorly kept rows and the lumpy sod that ran between the stones.
“If I had money, I would move us all out of here. No one should have to rest their bones in this place.”
At each headstone I turned over the sod that had grown-in where last years’ plants had been. I added potting soil and peat and moved to the next stone. Mom stepped in behind me, slid the selected plants from their trays, knelt behind the graves and set the flowers. At each stone, she made short remarks to the occupant below. She spoke softly and frankly, two notes of cheer for every hint of lament.
“I think you’ll like these, Grandma.”
“Hello, Robert. I can’t believe it will be three years soon.”
After the four graves in the open section were planted, and moments before we left toward the trees to attend to Uncle Joe’s plots, Mother stopped. She had almost forgotten the prayer.
In the shade it was cooler; the last three graves went quickly. Mom was tired, but you could hear the relief in her voice as we packed up the remaining plants and the tools. Just outside the grounds, a line of school kids did nothing to suppress their mirth as they passed along toward home. It would be many decades for most of them before passage alongside a graveyard would soften their voices: it would take decades to make their pasts much longer than their futures and their memories more potent than their dreams.
Just before she got into the car, Mother stopped. Though the Deed had been completed, we had almost forgotten to Pray.