I’ve always loved cemeteries, and used to spend a lot of time visiting them and wandering from grave to grave, thinking about the impact each person makes on their world. When I was a kid growing up in the New Jersey suburbs there was an old cemetery nearby we called “The Ghostly Graves”. It was a 15-20 minute walk through the woods, and I spent many days reading all the inscriptions on the markers and then lying on my back in the adjacent meadow.
I’ve kind of gotten out of the habit of visiting cemeteries. Although I’ve lived in Portland over 15 years I’ve never visited Lone Fir, our oldest pioneer cemetery with burials dating back to 1846. Heading home from an errand this morning I drove along one side of the cemetery and it crossed my mind to go in. It was a glorious sunny day and everything looked beautiful.
It took me a while to find the entrance, which was clear around the other side a few blocks away. I parked down the street and stepped through the gate, taking it all in. I imagined maybe I’d see someone mourning at a graveside and would brighten their day with the 14th Hundred. There were a couple of maintenance guys riding on lawnmowers but it was otherwise very quiet. A couple of people jogged past, and a woman walked by pushing a stroller. I saw a few people with sketchbooks and a guy in a bicycle helmet sitting on the grass having a snack.
In the distance, I thought I saw a figure curled up on one of the benches. Maybe this is why I’m here, I thought. I walked closer. It appeared to be a woman, asleep. There was a paper bag next to the bench that was partway open. I leaned down and took a peek inside. Instead of the bottle I was expecting, there was an apple and a box of coconut water. “Excuse me.”
“Excuse me”, I said again. One eye popped open and the woman turned her face up a bit. I could see that she was young and had some pretty serious piercings but not much else. “Are you okay?”, I asked. “Yeah”, she said. “I’m… okay”. Not too convincing. “Do you need anything?” “No. But thanks anyway.” Very polite. I stood there for a minute and she said, “Look. I’m just really tired. I’m taking a break from work and I just want to sleep.” “Where do you work?”, I asked. “Downtown”. Hmmm. We were nowhere near downtown. “Sit up for a sec, I have something I want to give you.” Her eyes were closed again. “No, thanks.”
Should I try harder? I felt pretty torn about it, like maybe I was missing a big opportunity. Maybe a little hurt, too, that my gift had been turned down. I walked away.
The cemetery really is beautiful, and there are lots of interesting headstone designs and inscriptions. One style of newer headstone that seems to be popular among members of a certain community includes very large and lifelike photos of the deceased on the gravestone. It’s quite unsettling. There was a mix of real and artificial flowers on the graves, and one covered with Halloween decorations and a hand lettered sign that said “Dad”.
I kept walking and saw a woman up ahead bent before an easel. I walked closer and said hello. She kept painting. I watched for a few seconds, then said “Do you mind?”. “Help yourself”, she shrugged. “For a minute”. I watched her dip her brush into the paint – first green, then blue. She dabbed the color onto the canvas. I looked at the scene in front of us, then back at the painting.
“Actually, do you mind if I interrupt you for a minute?” She stiffened. “What’s up?” I told her about my project and handed her the $100 bill. She looked at me for the first time. “Are you kidding me!?? Are you kidding me??” She must have said it a half dozen times.
I was kind of chuckling inside, thinking about Gloria yesterday and how grumpy she was at first. I thought back to the woman on the bench.
The painter told me her name was Cheryl and it was her first time painting at Lone Fir. She had been inspired to do it after reading about the cemetery founders in a historical comic book put out by the Dill Pickle Club. She wanted to know if I lived in the neighborhood and how I came to be there today. She gave me a big hug and said she would do something good with the money.
We talked for a while and I told Cheryl about the blog. She said she would dedicate the Lone Fir painting to me and Gina. As we said goodbye, she said “Bless you, that’s all I can say. And I never say that!”
As I walked back to my car I looked for the young woman in black. The bench was empty.