Monday, May 22, 2017

Finding Mrs. Experience

I’ve liked hanging out with dead people ever since I was a child. It must be because one of my mother’s favorite places for a picnic was the local graveyard. She’d pack sandwiches, deviled eggs, chips, drinks and one or more of her children, and we’d go dine among the headstones. We’d then spend the rest of the afternoon walking up and down the rows, reading the granite and marble markers. The ones with photographs – where the rain had seeped under the glass oval covering the image and left its moldy commentary – we prized above all others.

For me, strolling around graveyards has turned into a decades-long diversion. It’s a good one, too. It can be practiced almost anywhere and, like golf, it requires a certain amount of walking and gets you outdoors on a regular basis. But unlike golf it requires no expensive equipment, embarrassing apparel or exorbitant fees. Come to think of it, a hybrid facility would offer endless commercial potential. Why some enterprising soul hasn’t opened a chain of 18-hole cemeteries is one of entrepreneurial capitalism’s great mysteries.

Haunting graveyards is not a lonely hobby, either. Many people like nothing better than to spend weekends or part of a vacation roving the local burial ground. And for those hesitant to stray far from a cathode ray tube, the dead now have nearly as great an online presence as the living. Googling for cemeteries or trolling the grand archives of is a perfectly fine way to fritter away hours, if not days.

I’ve also traveled, non-virtually, to graveyards around the world, from Paris to New Orleans, Vietnam to Hawaii, Yucatan to Brazil, London and Spain. I’ve rarely gone on a trip that didn’t include a stop at the local bone pasture. In the case of Paris, the first time I went, I visited the city’s three largest cemeteries, a few small ones, the Catacombs and the Pantheon. My memory of those clammy August days among the subterranean and horizontal at Pere Lachaise, Montparnasse and Montmartre still retains a preternatural glow, maybe because my two traveling companions and I were never entirely sober.

I like the egalitarian atmosphere of cemeteries. At Pere Lachaise, which is the Sistine Chapel of graveyards, one can sit within a few feet of Edith Piaf or Sarah Bernhardt (or Jim Morrison, if you must, and if you can wade through the backpackers and bourbon bottles) without a backstage pass. The great emasculated sphinx that perpetually hovers over Oscar Wilde will hover over you, too, if you take a seat at the base of the extravagant one’s extravaganza of a monument. (It’s illegal, by the way, to leave lipstick traces on his tomb, but dozens have ignored that statute. I believe he will forgive them.) Or you and your lover can neck as Abelard and Heloise recline nearby; their stone effigies lie side by side, hand in hand, day and night. Always.

I roam cemeteries for the obvious reasons: their quietness and their peculiarity as places and architectural conglomerations, but as a small kid, drunk on life, unable to grasp the idea of it ever stopping, I was fascinated by the alien mood of the places. The oppressive quietness creeped me out a little, yet I found them strangely comforting. I still do. (Another cemetery fan, Eudora Welty, who took wonderfully evocative photographs of Mississippi graveyards, once said the places had a “sinister appeal.”) Cemetery connoisseurs appreciate the big showy ones such as Pere Lachaise, but like any connoisseur, the secret treasures they find by accident are what they live for. One of my favorites is a predominantly Japanese graveyard in a remote corner of Hawaii in an area that was inundated by lava from the eruption of Kilauea in 1960. The molten stuff oozed through the Big Island’s Kapoho cemetery, embracing and upending tombstones, freezing others at odd angles and leaving one group completely untouched. I’ve been there several times, and the only company I’ve ever had is a few gaudy cardinals who look like they belong in a Ukiyo-e woodcut.

One Sunday, driving through the Connecticut countryside, I bounced and chugged down a dirt lane in the woods and came across a small overgrown graveyard. Some of the headstones had toppled; a decorative cast-iron perimeter fence was falling to pieces. The dates on the markers, the ones that were still readable, went back to the 1700s. In one corner was a simple stone, streaked black by rainwater and mottled in lichen, inscribed with a bittersweet name I’ve never forgotten. Of all the grand graves I’ve laid eyes on, I’ve never found one with a name that compares. There is nothing in the outlandish cemeteries of Paris or New Orleans that comes close. It was the grave of a woman with nothing special about it except her name, which is not to say that she wasn’t special. She may have been; she must have been. She’s there still, I suppose, alone in the woods in the lush summer and the snowy wind, rediscovered every now and then, provoking dozens of questions and hundreds of fantasies with her miraculous moniker. No first name, just the common honorific of a married woman and the surname that trumps all others.

“Mrs. Experience,” the tombstone read. Mrs. Experience all by herself. No sign of a Mr. Experience, but what a couple they must have been. I stood there and stared for a good long while, wondering if there were ever any little Experiences. And if so, did she take them on picnics?

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