Skiing Home

These are the first pages of a memoir.  It has virtues.  I don’t think it’s ready.  Work in progress, closer to done than not, I pray. —

first pages: —

I looked in the U.S. Government pages of the Boston phone book, and under Veterans Administration listings, found a number for Graves Registry. A woman’s voice answered and said, “You’ll have to call back tomorrow and ask for Angela. I don’t work in graves.” But then she asked me the name I wanted and told me to hold on; she would take a look in the files herself.

I could hear her lay the phone on her desk and cross a room. I could hear her come back and pick up the phone. “Goodwin A. Dillen?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not Boston. It’s Cambridge Cemetery.”

I heard her say that, and thought I remembered it was a Cambridge cemetery.

“And who are you, again?”

Her voice was kind, but her question carried the possibility that graves information might not be given away to just anyone.

“He’s my father,” I said, and was submerged in a wave of shame for not knowing what had become of my own father.

“You’re Frederick,” she said.

“Yes.”

“New Mexico,” she said.

“That was then,” I said.

I spoke from my office in the corner of Leslie’s and my bedroom in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The window overlooked a frozen parking lot in the Italian west end of town, and for an instant, I imagined mesa and adobe and blue-skied cottonwood.

“Long time ago,” she said, her voice still kind. “Call Angela tomorrow and she’ll locate the grave for you.”

The next morning, I phoned the Graves Registry again, and it was Angela who answered. I told her, “I’m looking for my father’s grave,” and this time I expected my shame, but Angela had my father’s card on her desk and sounded inured to anything from anyone who entered her realm.

“He’s in Cambridge Cemetery,” she said. “You’ll have to call them to find out where. We don’t have grave numbers on the cards. Call Cambridge Cemetery, and they’ll be able to tell you where he is. You’ll need Date of Burial. Eleven, ten, seventy-two. Give them that.”

Nineteen seventy-two. I remembered a weekday morning that could have been November.

The cemetery was listed in the Cambridge city numbers under Public Works, and I got a recording of a man’s voice which, after a few automated selections of purpose, asked me for my own phone number so someone could call me back.

The recording also gave an emergency number, and when no one had called back in an hour, I wondered if it was an emergency that, after more than thirty years, I wanted to visit my father’s grave tomorrow. Because Leslie and I were supposed to be in Cambridge to see a movie, and Leslie had appointments beforehand, so I could do the cemetery while she was busy; in fact I had already found a friend at MIT who would have coffee with me in the early afternoon before I made the cemetery visit. I had already thought about warm clothes because the weather was to turn frigid.

In another half an hour, a woman called from the cemetery, and I gave her the name and the Date of Burial, and she put me on hold and came back and said, “We don’t have him.”

She was perfectly pleasant. “What was the spelling again?” And then she was gone again, and then back. “No, no record of him here.”

***

I should have brought him out to New Mexico to live with me and did not, but I did come back to bury him. He had been living off and on in a half-way house for drunks in East Boston, and the father of a friend from college looked up statutes about free burial for veterans, and the half-way house made a wake because it was good for the other men to see first-hand what happened if they slipped. The funeral home was soiled brick, cheap paneling and yellowed varnish, and the men from the half-way house smoked cigarettes and drank coffee among the folding chairs. My father’s face was wax, but I recognized his short fingers. I sat with the men. The next morning, I followed a hearse from the funeral home and an Oldsmobile from the half-way house out to the cemetery, where the box with my father went into a hole in the ground. Only two men from the halfway house came; after the hearse left, one of the men said, “Okay. We’re going to shove.”

***

“It’s my father,” I said to the woman who could not find any record of him in Cambridge Cemetery.

“What’s the Date of Burial again? Let’s look for him that way,” and there was a pause but not a long one, and she said, “Here we are. We have him as a D U. Dullen. That’s the problem. Goodwin A. Dullen. World War Two, right? Eleven, ten, seventy-two.”

“It should be D I.”

“Right. Has to be him.”

“It should be Dillen.”

“I’ll change it. But that’s where he is. Second World War. Tier twenty-two, grave thirty-six.”

***

I drove down and met the MIT guy and we went for coffee and crepes in the student buildings. And because I didn’t know the guy well, because we had only so much to say, because I had arranged for the coffee after finding out my father was in Cambridge, I talked about my afternoon errand. I painted it that way, as a peculiarly awkward errand but one that could absolutely be discussed in comfort.

For years when I was young, I didn’t speak about it at all, but eventually I learned to describe my childhood family as having “caught fire.” If anybody was still curious, I gave a few clinical details – Mother’s cancer, Bill’s heroin, Daddy’s booze – and then set it all away so that, for the curious as for me, it could be honest and done, startling but not lastingly under anyone’s skin, a past-tense horror behind glass in another room of the museum.

We sat on stainless chairs at a high, black table and ate our crepes and drank cappuccino, and I hadn’t had crepes more than two or three times since Mrs. Beers babysat Bill and me when I was maybe eight. Mrs. Beers made crepes and could also play catch with a hardball, and when my friend looked at his watch, it was three o’clock. The office at Cambridge Cemetery would have closed.

The woman had told me there were maps outside the cemetery office, and I preferred just the maps. I didn’t want a guide. I didn’t want much time. The gates closed at dusk, but by four-thirty, I would be meeting Leslie at a hamburger joint called Charlie’s, and after that the movie.

I left on my casually awkward errand.

Though it was not casual. What I had not mentioned over crepes and the black tabletop, was that my father was no longer behind glass.

Because after my own decades of scraping by on blue collar labor and the inedible expectations of a novelist, after Leslie’s and my daughters were out of the house, a film option got Leslie and me to Los Angeles where my expectations went delusional and for a year and a half we lived on credit cards. No film happened; no expectation ever became less than delusional; there was no cushion of savings, and by the time we made it back to Gloucester, Leslie and I were so destitute I could barely control my bowels. With that, my father arrived. I did not see visions of him, but he was there. He did not flaunt his destitution, or shame me for having left him to die on the street; instead he gave me the bone truth of my boyhood, of our family falling through the dark, of his bellowing downstairs in the night and then the throb of old records until morning, of green bruises on my mother’s thigh from pinching he pretended was in fun. I got hack work as a writer in the Boston business community, and Leslie and I began to come marginally clear with the money, and my father (not my mother, not Bill) persuaded me to feel, month after month, like a frightened boy. I tried to resurrect my museum of easy phrases and oblivious recollection; I tried to imagine my whole family, my poor strong mother and my brilliant brother and my roaring father, all lifting out of me like spirits released; I read in a healing frame of mind about survivor guilt in the Life section of the newspaper. And my father grabbed into my chest and squeezed so hard that on some days I could not pretend real people lived in any world I knew.

***

Memorial Drive ran up along the Charles River from MIT past Harvard, and then if you jogged away from the river toward Mount Auburn, and turned back left onto Coolidge, you passed Shady Hill, the good private elementary school. At three-thirty on a Thursday, the left shoulder of Coolidge Avenue was lined with cars waiting to pick up children from the school. The cars were good ones and the drivers mostly mothers.

***

There was one surviving album of photographs of my mother and father, from the time of their courting when they lived with their two military families in Panama, my father’s father a captain in the Navy and my mother’s father a colonel in the Army. Although I knew the pictures, I looked at them again when my father began to haunt me, and I came across a letter I’d never seen before. It was on the thin paper for overseas mail and must have fallen out from behind a picture. It was a love letter my father wrote to my mother after her family had been posted back to the States. My father wasn’t much more than a kid, and the letter was juvenile and should have been endearing and was not endearing.

I’d always known that my father as good as killed my mother with his life, but I had never blamed him. I had loved him and known that he loved me. I had been sorry I let him die as he did. But, in his letter, my father said he was going to follow my mother anywhere and always, no matter what, and for the first time I hated him. I knew how my mother loved him, and I knew what became of her, and I said out loud, “Don’t follow her. Don’t follow her.”

 

“Take the second gate, the main gate, to the Office,” the woman had said, and the wall of the cemetery was stone gone black in its seams with the moss of city grit. The stone gateposts were massive. The office was just inside the gate, as squat and thick with stone as the headquarters for an old state park. Paths lifted beyond the office into the swales of a stone-darkened woodland of monuments.

I didn’t remember any of it.

I parked and walked up on the porch. The door was closed and any lights were off, but I found a map in a rack on the wall. On one side of the map were columns of text, a Directory of Ways listing all the paths and the coordinates for finding them. The other side showed the actual layout of the cemetery.

I looked for Tier twenty-two, grave thirty-six, but aside from a short column of range numbers, the Directory of Ways seemed to be about paths named for trees and flowers. There were no tiers. There were a few numbered paths but the numbers ran only to nine. The Directory was alphabetical, beginning with Acacia and Acorn. The Ts were Thistle, Trefoil, Tritonia and Tulip. No Tier. And then there were the ranges, but ranges were not tiers. On the map itself, there were only paths and ranges. The map was plain white, twelve by eighteen, faintly overlaid with a numbered and lettered grid. The middle area of the map was looped by the open, winding paths, and the south edge and all of the western half were dense in the ranges. The Civil War lay at the southeast corner. In the northeast, were World War II, World War I, Korea, Vietnam. The wars were also on the other side of the paper, in the Directory of Ways, among the paths. Woodbine, World War I, World War II, Wisteria. The only ranges near World War II were numbers one hundred ninety through one hundred ninety-five. Range number twenty-two, if it were to be a tier, was all the way at the far southeast corner in the Civil War.

I had to be looking somewhere in World War II.

And World War II was a stretched, empty oval, down from the Shady Hill School and in from the wall along Coolidge. There were no ranges or paths marked in the oval. It had to be that the graves were arranged in tiers, and the tiers were measured into the area itself but not drawn on the map. I held my map and looked out from the office porch. All the view was cemetery, but it was not only rows upon rows of tombstones. It was New England in winter with old oaks seamed like the monuments. It was a stilled park, and in the direction of the school, it held the broad, flat, snow-covered lawn of World War II.

There were no standing monuments or stones in that lawn, but toward the far end were a few small flags pinned into the snow; here and there were shreds of flowers; exposed earth marked what had to be a new grave. At the very end, was a guy standing near a blue civilian van. There was no one else.

I was not going to be able to find my father.

I got in the car and drove the length of World War II and stopped behind the van. The guy had made a small clearing in the snow, and I guessed he’d come, as he often did, to be with a father he loved and missed. It was cold, and he didn’t have on more than a light parka.

“Excuse me,” I said, and he turned. He had heard the car and heard my footsteps on the snow. He had an agreeable face and wasn’t disturbed.

“I’m looking for a grave in tier number twenty-two. Do you have an idea where that would be?”

“World War Two?”

“Yes.”

“When did he die?”

“Nineteen Seventy-two.”

He nodded down to his feet, to a level stone from which he’d cleared the snow. “My father died last year and he’s here, so nineteen seventy-two would be,” and the guy, a good guy, looked back the length of the World War II oval.

I said, “Thanks,” as if I had not failed to mention that I, too, was visiting a father.

I walked out across the snow, and there were other stones, here and there, that had been exposed. There were several wire markers and flags driven into the snow by vets groups. The dates were still in the nineties. Across by the cemetery lane was the new grave, rude against the snow with a quantity of fresh roses deteriorating brightly.

I walked on and saw a cleared stone from 1983 and understood that even if today were summer and green grass, I could not find my father without his having a stone. I had never arranged a stone.

I needed someone from the office, a guide after all, to walk off Tier Twenty-two with me and say, “This would be thirty-six. This is where he’d be.”

The shame was in my throat again, yet now, ahead for another full sixty or seventy yards, no snow had been disturbed. There may have been, must have been, thousands of stones, but none had been visited. In all the rest of World War II there was nothing to be seen but half a dozen slight, leafless trees, each of which held in its black branches a rain of red seedpods.


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