My mother’s tombstone is so high above my head, it’s hard to connect with her grave.
Every trip to Los Angeles is punctuated by a visit with my parents. They’re buried at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park, just a few hundred feet from each other. I haven’t lived in L.A. since the mid 1980s but it will forever be the place I come from. And this visit has become part of my ritual each time I return. I’m usually alone with my thoughts but this time the city was a stop on a family vacation so my wife and girls were with me. As we drove toward the cemetery gates we stopped by the roadside to buy a bouquet of flowers from a vendor.
These visits are never comforting. My early life wasn’t easy but the city holds those memories, always waiting for me to return. As we walked to my mother’s grave I explained to my family we would divide the flowers into two uneven groups. The larger one would be for my mother and the smaller would be for my father. The imbalance reflected part of that old family history, one my wife was familiar with. But how do you explain the details to your questioning children? I didn’t. Someday, when they’re older I’d get into the details but for now this would have to do. However, leave it to them to understand more than you want to make clear. As we pruned and arranged my mother’s bouquet my twelve year old said “When you and mom die we’ll create two equal bunches.”
This led to further questions. “Where do you want to be buried, Dad; here or in D.C.?” “Do you want to be cremated?” “Do Jewish people get cremated?” Mom had already made her last wishes known but I’d been silent. “Can I be buried here?” my youngest asked. I had no answers to these queries. And, truthfully, I didn’t want to think about them at that moment. I was working too hard on my past to consider that future.
My mother is buried in a crypt stacked ten feet above other crypts. I never liked that distance. It’s too high to really feel a connection with her but she’s buried next to both of her parents and I wouldn’t want to change that. Her grave marker, however, is a different story. “BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER,” it says. Not very creative or personal. Hundreds of beloved wives and mothers surrounded us. But I was connected to only one. When she died my father took care of all the funeral arrangements. And even though my sister and I were adults he never asked us what we’d like to say.
• • •
When I was nine, I watched the scariest movie I’d ever seen, Invaders from Mars. The film was about a boy named David who was just about my age. One stormy night he looks out his bedroom window to see a spaceship landing in the open field behind his house. When his parents go out to investigate the ground opens up and a celestial chorus crescendos as they disappear. Shortly thereafter they return “changed.” The Martians have implanted a device to control them. David knows but nobody believes him. At the climax of the film he suddenly finds himself back in bed, woken up by the same thunderstorm that began the story. His parents come in to reassure him his nightmare was only a bad dream. Even now I cringe.
But as scared as I was back then I watched the movie four more times that week. Such are the inconsistencies of boyhood. I never walked through a vacant lot again without looking down at the ground, ready to sidestep any opening that suddenly appeared.
As I lay in bed after the fifth showing I couldn’t get that vision of David’s altered parents out of my head. I was wide awake, too afraid to close my eyes. When all my young survival skills failed me I yelled for my mom and when she popped her head inside my bedroom door I admitted to my scifi film addiction. She listened quietly as I spilled my guts and when I could spill no more I remember her saying “Just think good thoughts.” That was it. “Just think good thoughts.” As if that would solve my biggest problem ever.
• • •
As we stood looking up at my mother’s grave I mentioned to my wife my desire to change my mother’s tombstone. “What would you like it to say?” she asked. I didn’t know. “Well,” is there any phrase or word you remember your mother saying?” Immediately I remembered the story of that very scared little boy, a set of Martians, and a mother. “How about ‘Just think good thoughts.'”
It was perfect.