I picture myself in Memorial Park, the cemetery without tombstones. This cemetery (in Malvern, Pennsylvania) does contain a small patch of graves with tombstones. This is the old Eastern European section where you can see photos of the deceased next to their names. There are images of women in kerchiefs; young babies with bulbous cheeks; boys in long bow ties with dark hollow eyes, all of them buried long before I was born and now dust or bones, these images live forever.
I visit this cemetery whenever I can, but as a boy, I went all the time, in the summer, fall and even the winter when the ground was coated with a layer of snow.
I’d visit my favorite grave, Mary Wiggins’, positioned at the base of a fine-looking tree and on the top of a hill. Mary Wiggins, the ninety-year old woman who taught us Nickels children how to make snow ice cream. Mary Wiggins, who washed mother’s dishes and ironed our clothes for a small salary while looking after me when I was sick. Mary Wiggins became part of our family. Though “only” a neighbor, in some ways she was better than a grandmother. To this day, I ask myself: What was it about Mary Wiggins?
When mother told us Mary was coming to the house, we knew it was going to be a good day.
One day I showed Mary Wiggins a letter I received in the mail. The letter was written on thick incense-smelling parchment. The sender was none other than Pope Pius XII, writing in response to my letter to him: a schoolboy writing to the pope because he had a question. Not long after this, Mary Wiggins became Catholic and then very soon after that, she died.
I couldn’t help but think that she became a Catholic because of the letter from the pope.
Mary died in winter when snow was on the ground, when the cemetery without tombstones was coated in white.
Years later I brought a small votive candle to Mary’s grave. While placing the candle in the earth I spotted a hawk making circles in the sky as fall breezes bent the tree tops.
An old railroad track borders the cemetery. In the old days freight trains with brown boxcars and little windowed cabooses traveled on this track. Next to this was The Dead Track. The Dead Track led into a forest before going over a bridge and then alongside a vast quarry where one time I found what everyone said was a dinosaur fossil.
The Dead Track and the surrounding fields and forests smelled of corn, wet hay, cow pods and smoky embers from faraway fireplaces.
When I’d visit Mary’s grave, I’d sometimes think: Is she skull and bones? Can she see me now in spirit form?
When I would visit her grave as a boy, I would often say a prayer asking Mary Wiggins to appear to me if she could. I would ask God to give her permission to appear. Please, make an exception to the rule…. Just this once let me see someone come back from the dead. Give me a sign. Our family is all about signs. When did we not sit around after Christmas dinner and make pacts with one another? “When I am dead I will try to give you a sign,” a tap on the knee, a knocked over vase, a window opening by itself, levitating spoons. Everyone promises to give signs on the other side and they swear that the signs will be clear and not confusing.
Before my mother died, she said to tap our knee three times if we wanted her to come to us.
But signs from the dead must be clear and not ambiguous, like the time my great Uncle John, dead about a year, appeared on a chair dressed in white to my great grandmother. “There he was, sitting in that chair looking straight at me, dressed all in white! He was there!” my great grandmother insisted.
I wondered if Mary Wiggins would come through to me. Hadn’t she nursed me through the worst bout of double pneumonia as a ten year old, refilling the Vicks Vapo Rub steam machine, spooning out cough medicines, soups, rubbing my chest with Vicks, and telling me stories?
Appear Mary Wiggins, appear!
But nothing happened, so the only thing to do was to leave the tree and walk around the cemetery, this city of the dead, and wait to see if something happened in its own time.
Then, one day when leaving Mary’s grave, I felt a tingling sensation rise up from my feet to the upper portion of my body so that the lower part of me felt like it was no longer there. I had never experienced anything like this before.
Something did happen, but what? I certainly never saw Mary Wiggins. All I saw were a nearby farmer’s hay stacks in the setting sun.
On my way home, I moved around the perimeter of the cemetery near the far end of the railroad tracks where there were a few random graves. Unkempt, isolated, forgotten graves but why were they so close to the boxcars?
I felt a compulsion to follow The Dead Track, the track that leads to the quarry.
The Dead Track meanders through trees and fields before passing a rustic terrain that looks like the Old West. My father once told me that this is where Hollywood once came to film spaghetti westerns.
An invisible hand seemed to be pushing me along The Dead Track; I walked quickly, as if on a mission.
I followed the track under the canopy of trees, counting railroad beams, walking tightrope fashion on top of one rail, sometimes losing my balance but then repositioning myself, skipping from one beam to the next. Then I resumed regular walking wondering why I seemed to be in a hurry.
When Mary Wiggins visited me in Chester County, hospital she had to talk to me through a tiny slit in the isolation ward window. I was in my hospital Johnny reading Black Beauty and The Hardy Boys but also listening to radio soap operas. The nurses hated it when I listened to soap operas. “Why are you listening to that?” they said, giving me crooked, suspicious glances.
Mary Wiggins and my mother would pass boxes of chocolates to me through the slit in the hospital room window. You’re coming home soon, son; Sister Constance from Saint Patrick’s school delivered 100 get well letters from your classmates. Dad sends his love. But the worried look on their faces worried me. There had been talk of putting me into an iron lung but then the doctors settled on a non surgical procedure. I wasn’t sure how an iron lung worked. I was told that they slid you into this big oil burner container but only up to your neck and that you had to lie like that until they took you out. The iron lung did your breathing for you. Some people never got out of the iron lung but were swallowed up inside.
I was afraid of being swallowed up.
Walking along The Dead Track I came to the creek with its crayfish and minnows after passing the spaghetti western fields where warring cowboys and Apaches once pretended to fight. If I were able to fly like a bird I would have flown up over the trees until I came to the cliffs of the quarry.
Ahead of me in the clearing, standing before the grey quarry cliffs I was able to make out what looked like the shadow of an old lady. It was really a shadow cast by the sun among the rocks but in the shadow world it resembled an old lady. The form lasted only a second but somehow it was enough to keep me moving forward…