Diane Mehta

Dip Your Hand In

Wandering around in cemeteries forces you to wrestle with all the possibilities your life has left to offer. When you’re middle aged, and closer to death, it’s inevitable that you’d look back on your experiences to help you understand the future. There’s as much variety to cemeteries as there is variety of experience: The overgrown cemetery in London’s Harrow on the Hill, with soft moss creeping up slanted, buck-tooth tombstones; Golda Meir’s smooth, sun-scorched tomb high up on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem; and Montmartre cemetery in Paris, ambling between dusty, crowded Jewish tombstones, on some of which are carved names of bodiless people murdered in the Holocaust. Lives extinguished too early, etched on the tombstone that records the history of the long-lived.


Cemeteries are grounded in centuries of history and people’s contributions to it, and free from the burdens of misery and joy that color daily life. You can disappear for hours in them, losing yourself in strangers’ families and lives, instead of your own. But, as in life, there’s a lot more information than you realize, once you feel compelled to start digging. 


You have a shared history with your family and it has, literally and figuratively, a plot. On the surface it seems fixed, but like history itself, investigated with a new lens or through the facets of a prism, your personal history is very much in flux. If you think of it as a Venn diagram, it quickly becomes clear how difficult it is to puzzle out the logic. First, you must separate the Roman from the Arabic numerals, and then the digits from the symbols, and then you tinker until you see where they overlap. But there’s the rub. Are those sets of histories and circumstances finite? You look at the paper trail of curated information: birth and death certificates; marriage licenses; family trees; diplomas and college degrees; letters; diaries; scrap books; bank statements; immigration documents; and photographs of vacations, births, and graduations. But what happens in the moments before and after the photographs, behind facts and after the obvious? What is the truest story of your life? 


I want to believe that the knowledge we seek is what’s eternally being worked out, a kind of laboratory experiment that fuses generations living and dead. Some sort of collective, accrued-upon imagination. I like to think that floating around in cemeteries are thousands of secrets, forever opaque to the living: glass that grows, ears with other galaxies singing in them. They are places that feel quietly theatrical because they do not belong to us but to the dead. We cannot measure what goes on in cemeteries any more than our instruments can measure what truly goes on in space. Dark matter is incomprehensible except as something inferred: It has a gravitational effect on visible matter, but we don’t know what it is. Similarly, the dead exert their gravity on us in that we cannot let them go. True, the dead may not care about us any longer. They have no hearts, no brains. They are spirits who have plunged off the edge of what we, and the machines we make to measure what is living, understand to be life. What we seek is knowledge, and they have all the information, being dead. Or so we think. 


Writing in a letter to his son, who he expects will not read the letter until he is an adult, the terminally ill pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead imagines becoming an expert at being dead: “I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself.” The human act of knowing, while dead, is a wry leap of faith. It makes death less macabre to think that we can accrue expertise in it, as if the dead had their own style of living. 


When I first visited Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, five years ago, I had just become a middle-aged woman, tugging my bag of clichés: divorced, mid-40s, one kid, trying to create a future in which I had a better grip on reality. My mother had been dead since I was 35 and my father had suffered six strokes, emerging astonishingly intact from all of them. I had become comfortable in hospitals and among the emotions and procedures of illness. But the clock was ticking faster. My father’s years were fleeing fast and mine were starting to look abbreviated. I began writing a novel, perhaps as a way to look more closely at my parents’ lives, and their unhappiness, instead of my own. I set it in 1946, conveniently 20 years before I was born. I would get to the heart of their miserable marriage. The novel would be ugly, like life, to show what it was like to be my mother, to be Jewish and pathologically smart, angry, overlooked, and die, in that order. I’d also broach the story of my father, whose Jainism shaped his moral center but left him emotionally remote. There would be romance in it, but it wouldn’t be between my parents, because that, in my roundabout logic, seemed like the truest way to understand what love was. In one draft I made the mother-character commit suicide, and in the next I gave my fictional parents a happy future, together. I wanted more love in my future, from them and from others, even if my only option was to find love through my fictional characters and try to pin that fake love on my parents so I could feel it and steal it. 


I loved being stuck in this story of my parents, because it had no proper order. What happened would depend on the mood or moment I felt compelled to explore. “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead,” said Graham Greene. I could pivot my parents’ story whichever way I wanted, and let the narrative coax out its own imaginative logic. 


Green-Wood intrigued me because its wooded-glen landscape seemed to be an orderly and frankly lovely way of thinking about the dead while I was not in mourning. By the time I moved to Brooklyn, where my mother was raised, she’d been dead three years. At the time I visited Green-Wood, twelve years after she died, it was at the close of a difficult year in which I was investigating everything about myself, and I could feel the delicate April promise of better times ahead. It was easy to feel serious at Green-Wood. In it, I imagined homespun tales of turn-of-century Jewish families, like the one my mother gre