My mother died the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 26th, 1993. We — my sister and the rest of our family — buried her four days later. My father died 9 months later. The unveiling of their tombstone was on November 17th, 1994.
It was the last time I saw/visited their graves.
The Westchester Hills Cemetery is about 15 miles north of Manhattan. It is filled with the graves of the well-known and not.
Aside from my parents, my mother’s mother is buried there. Miriam Shomer Zunser, who died in 1951, as is her father, Charles Zunser, and her brother, Shomer, who died in 1965. Other family members are buried there and in Brooklyn, Queens, and Shelter Island.
Ever since Spring came upon us this year in fits and starts, I’ve thought about my parents, particularly my mother. And though I’ve thought of visiting their graves several times in the past, I’ve never been sufficiently interested or felt sufficiently motivated. After all, as my wife says, they’re long gone. As it happens, the only times I’ve thought of it have been in the winter, with cold winds blowing, shivering in the frosty air.
In late June, on my way into the city to see my granddaughter graduate from high school, I decided to see the grave. It was not what I expected.
The cemetery rises along the steep hills lying to the east of the Saw Mill River Parkway in Hastings-on-Hudson, a place where many famous Jewish people are buried along with more ordinary folks like my parents. Her sister is buried, I think, on Shelter Island. Grandpa’s brother is buried in Saratoga Springs. The great patriarch of the Zunser clan, Eliakum, is buried in Brooklyn along with other family members. We are as dust, scattered in the wind.
My parents’ grave site is not the same as it was 24 years ago. Today the hills are green, trees that seemed saplings 25 years ago are now full-grown. Their graves, despite being in a large plot, feels hemmed in, crowded on all sides. Trees shade it constantly and the ground is bare, perhaps waiting for grass to be planted that may never come.
In 1994, the last time I was at the grave for the unveiling of the gravestone, the wind was cold, the earth bare and dry, the grass brown and brittle, the trees mere saplings. A small group of people gathered around the grave as Amy, my sister, spoke, quoting a poem by WH Auden.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message They are Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the pubic doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
They were my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that they would last forever: I was wrong.
This Spring and Summer, I sit on my ZTM mowing the grass, something I do most every week depending on the amount of rain. It is a pain (because it is a chore) and a pleasure (because I have conversations with the various trees, shrubs and flowers that we have planted.
We bought the house in 1990 after having lived together for a few years. By then, Alicia, Lee’s daughter was 12. The house was just a mile or so from my parents’ house on Copake Lake and they were pleased with my choice of a wife and that we had chosen to be so close to them. In August, Mom decided to give us a joint housewarming-wedding present, a small orchard of fruit trees. Crabapples, apples, pears, peaches, plums, a dozen in all. Michelle, my daughter, came from San Francisco to help with the planting and the wedding, which took place in a tent on our driveway. Little did any of us know Mom had only 3 more years to live, Dad, 4.
Over the next couple of Springs and Summers, we planted things from Mom’s garden on the lake, Mom working harder than any of us. There were lilacs, purple and white. There were peonies. We rooted a branch from her Weeping Willow after she died and planted it; it now stands at least 25’ tall. A colleague gave us a 4’ Blue Spruce for a wedding present; it’s now 30’ or 40’ tall, maybe more. There are flowers from her sister Helen’s garden in Shelter Island, Irises from Mary, her one-time writing partner’s home in Sharon Springs. We planted a Dogwood for Alicia; it took 7 years to bloom but it finally did. Also, a late blooming Dogwood for Brandon and Sallie, my son and his wife. A Redbud and Flowering Plum one Mother’s Day for Lee. A Fringe Tree for Alicia and her husband, Daniel. A Tri-Color Birch for Dad. A twisty Pine for Jane and Cleo, our twin granddaughters. A Witch Hazel for Michelle. Another Redbud for Karas, Alicia’s daughter, a Mimosa for Jax [sic] our 3-year-old grandson just this year. We hope he will be more circumspect than the Mimosa when spreading his seed.
And so, I putt, putt on my ZTM, speaking to them all as I pass them by, surrounded by them all. And I think, again, about my failure to visit my mother’s grave more often and I realize I don’t need to; that she is as much with me as I’m mowing the lawn as she ever was, that I am embraced by her more now, more constantly, than ever in real life, that she lives on in my living memory as does the rest of our family, and I feel comforted by their warm, living embrace. I am home.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.