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 grew up in. Maybe I felt a little closer to my mother there, even though she is buried in New Jersey. But Green-Wood was pretty enough to buoy the spirit. The cemetery-park was twenty blocks away, and until that year, I’d never thought to visit. Surprised by the grand neo-Gothic entrance, I marveled, inwardly thrilled, and decided that I’d hit a jackpot of macabre leisure. I took a left and wandered up a steep hill that twisted down into woodsy acres, where I meandered between angels reaching out with sad longing from concrete plinths. I’d been binge-watching Doctor Who with my son, and they reminded me of Doctor Who’s weeping angels, predatory creatures that sweep you back in time to steal the life you’ve already lived. (You are alive, cemeteries insist.) Angels lean, mid-grief, over stone caskets or pose on plinths, their pre-Raphaelite hair eternally curling and their tall, muscular wings poised powerfully behind them as if reminding us that they could just take off. They are here to protect the dead. But it is we, the living, who need protecting, not from death but from not properly living.
I’ll get what I want! you think when you are in your twenties. “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wanted to be known for the syntactical fireworks in my poems, to find a rugged beautiful lover with a svelte way of thinking, to rid myself of the anxiety that I might be permanently flighty or miserable, to see myself as lovely instead of ugly as my childhood peers taunted, to live a radical and unusual life enlivened by literature.
Twenty years later, my life was numbing. I hadn’t published enough, I walked away from a job to raise my son, and I found parenting laborious and intellectually unsatisfying. I wanted to work. I didn’t feel loved. What had I really accomplished? How often do we finish what we set out to do? Maybe it’s only when you have exited a time in which you were not really living that you figure out how to.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” said Thoreau. He had decided that contentment, or some version of it, was interior instead of material. Thoreau was only 28 years old in 1845, when he went to live at Walden Pond. He died of tuberculosis at 45, which for me is just the beginning of middle age, but in line with life expectancy back then. Walden Pond was an awakening, especially for a Transcendentalist like Thoreau, who believed he’d find divinity in nature. What was so fulfilling about Thoreau’s afternoon rambles or the passing of shadows on the ground?
“I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow’s arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tingeing the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin.”
What does it mean to have noticed things? Is that what living is? Perhaps it’s not that he was doing nothing but that he was actively doing. Thoreau’s idea of experience is different from mine. When I am outdoors, I am still a creature of desire: Just as I want nice shoes or good friends, I want the sunshine to change my attitude. I want to see a landscape so unbearably beautiful that it elevates me and remains in the camera of my brain as Experience #2,452. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Thoreau advises. I have lived, I have lived! I think. Can I suck out all the marrow of life, the way Thoreau describes it?
Maybe in our uneasy plod towards the future, we make our observations about ourselves. Looking around the grounds at Green-Wood, I stared with horrified fascination at the private mausoleums in which wealthy families chose to be buried. Waste of money, my child-of-the-Depression mother would have said. What vanity to build little house-fortresses in this dead-souls park, with swirling surrealist skies pulsing overhead and the ground quietly churning with maggots, worms, and human cells. So much pomp, yet each gravestone announced, with proud certitude, a life boiled down to one thing: Ida was a good mother, Stan was a good earner.
When we meet people, we always ask what they do. And while it’s true that what we do deeply defines us, it’s also true that it deeply restricts us. The historian Jill Lepore showed, in her biography of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, how brilliant she was, and what how different would have been for her if it hadn’t been the 18th century and women were allowed to attend school. She was a wife and mother. And without Lepore to elucidate her life, we’d have only that one official story, a side note to her famous brother. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie has also warned of the danger of a single story. Her first stories were about white and blue-eyed characters who played in the snow. Her discovery of African writers saved her from having a single story of what books are. She observes that Western literature has a single story of sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, with people who Kipling said are “half-devil, half-child.” You create a stereotype with only one story, she explains, and stereotypes are incomplete.
I decided to change the story of Ida and Stan. Ida wasn’t a good mother, but she was beautiful, and she wanted to be a statistician. Math to her was like a spider web she was forever unspooling. Stan was tired of working at the docks and wanted to be a photographer. Was my story better than their single-story tombstones? Maybe the boiled versions were true. I fretted: Would I, too, be distilled to an aphorism? Ugly immigrant came to mind, the story of my childhood, or overly passionate malcontent writer. Better to have nothing, or a quote. I looked around for simple gravestones that listed only the years lived, and ran through the possibilities left to the imagination. Those were more satisfying. This man, musical prodigy, was composing a jazz sonata in his head when he was knifed on his front steps. This woman created the science of home economics and loved to climb mountains. Here is a marine, killed days after the Battle of Belleau Wood began, during that first American entry into World War I. It is because of men like him that the tide turned against the Germans. Down the slope is a man who spent his life in and out of a federal prison, after a childhood in foster care. His mother, a drunk, was thrown in an asylum when his baby sister was discovered dead from neglect. His father was stationed somewhere.
My mother is buried in a section of a Jewish cemetery in New Jersey called King Solomon Memorial Park. She is under a wide-canopied tree. She was a wife and mother, her tombstone says, overlooking her quantity of feeling, and the things she taught me.
After we moved to the States, in 1973, my mother went out giving my sister and me a proper education. As sensitive as my father, a physician, was to understanding the mechanics of the body, so was she sensitive to, and skilled at, the contemplation of art and ideas. She wanted us to be critical people, to have opinions. Our mother quizzed us on the instruments in the orchestra pit at Carnegie Hall, asking that we identity them visually and also by their sounds. We did the same with paintings by Rembrandt and Monet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, observing the white-lace frilly collars that reflected light on the faces of Rembrandt’s subjects and the pointillist diffusion of outdoor light in Monet’s landscapes. We learned what direction is, on the stage or at the symphony. We go to see the same music over and over, she explained, because each conductor interprets it a different way. I must have been thirteen then, when she turned to me to describe this newly grand, grown-up secret of what conducting was, his feeling about a piece of music. She loved the flamboyant, breathless conducting styles of Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta, the former expressive and the latter violent in their gestures. They were men of bold interpretations and grand, arm-flinging feelings. She loved the big feelings, I realize now, because they took her out of everything that felt ordinary.
My mother took us to see Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town several times. It’s a universal story about an ordinary couple in the fictional town of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, in the early 1900s. The play clearly struck a chord in my mother, but it has taken me much of my life to figure out why. “We like the sun comin’ up over the mountain in the morning, and we all notice a good deal about the birds,” says one of the residents in Grover’s Corner. They live out their lives without too much introspection. Their cultural references are simple: They know Robinson Crusoe and the Bible, Handel’s Largo, and Whistler’s Mother. The drama probes nothing less than the meaning of life, and it comes up empty. Our Town is about regret. It was clear that my mother, even in middle age, regretted her inability to live her life more fully. She was probably my age then. It seems exciting that she met a handsome Indian man and married him, then went to India and raised two children there. Less exciting is her prolonged unhappiness, the weeks she disappeared into an asylum, the years she spent at Breach Candy swimming pool, which famously only permitted Indians like my father if they were married to foreigners like my mother.
Once my parents left India, my mother’s life was no less domestic and ordinary than the women in Grover’s Corner, cooking four decades of meals for their husbands. I wonder at what point she swerved from a woman of intellectual exuberance into a despondent housewife who had so little, and who told me that the radio saved her life. Could she have known that her children, and a handful of articles, letters, recipes, and conversations, would be the sum total of her output? Decades later, past the point of heart transplant surgery and ICU wards, she was calmly reconciled to the fact that her possibilities had vanished. She hadn’t done much with her talents, she had underestimated herself. Finally, just like the residents of Grover’s Corner, there was no more angling for anything deeper, she was simply living. “Do you want to have children?” she asked me before she died, and pointed out that she will never meet them.
When Our Town’s protagonist Emily Webb dies in childbirth, she begs the dead, who are attending her funeral, to relive a moment in her life. Sensing how it will end up, they insist that Emily select an unimportant day. Emily picks her 12th birthday.
“I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I’m here. I’m grown up. I love you all, everything.—I can’t look at everything hard enough.”
Delight turns to despair: Emily is pained by how little attention the living pay to the significance of each moment. “To move about in a cloud of ignorance,” that’s what living is. It brings up the riddle of what fulfillment is.
Indians have always checked their fortunes before marriage, seeking guarantees for fulfillment. My father was one of three out of six children in his fami