“How will Santa know where to bring our presents?” my older boy worried.
“How will I ever be ready for the holidays?” I worried.
By that spring the new house had grown a layer of dust. Winter mud had given way to a big hole destined to become our swimming pool. And the months had given me some perspective regarding the move.
“I’m never going to do that again,” I said. “Next time I move, it will be feet first in a wooden box.”
That summer, the boys watched in awe as their father built a wooden box. The container was long, narrow and about two feet deep. Just the right size . . . for their air mattresses and pool toys. Whatever the reason, my comment alluding to death didn’t faze the kids. Their childish bickering played with the idea of burying mom under the redwood trees.
“You have to dig the hole,” little brother said. “You’re bigger than me.”
“I’ll dig the end for her head,” big brother countered. “You dig the end for her feet.”
The depth of their concern was shallower than the imagined grave.
Years later, a very dear friend lost his battle with cancer. His wife followed him three months later after elective knee surgery caused a blood clot. Shock waves crashed over their family and friends. Ken and I reached out to the couple’s young adult children, but their grief was beyond consolation.
We resolved to take steps to spare our sons from ever having to make the hard decisions an unexpected death throws at families. But, we’re frugal. Strike that. We’re cheap. So we checked the classified section of the local paper and bought a second-hand, double-wide burial plot.
It’s not as bad as it sounds. Let me explain. A couple purchased the plot, then decided “to death do you part” wasn’t in their future. Lucky us! We picked up the “like new” parcel at a bargain basement price. The term double-wide means my love and I will rest in eternity beside one another, not in a double-decker berth. Equality even in death – neither of us will find ourselves in the deeper, damper, darker suite.
I gave Ken free rein to choose suitable boxes for us. I wasn’t psychologically prepared to visit the sales floor where rows of caskets with open lids displayed satin interior accoutrements in flattering pastels. Oak, mahogany, steel, copper. I really didn’t care.
“Surprise me,” I told him.
The cemetery allows patrons to pay up front. Funds are held in an interest-earning escrow account and the final costs are locked in. (Not unlike the occupants of the aforementioned boxes.) To calculate the bottom line, it was necessary for us to choose our headstone. By this point in the process, the only way I could maintain my equilibrium was to throw in some levity. I’m not sure the mortuary rep appreciated my humor.
“The bronze headstone you’ve chosen will be created in the next few weeks,” he explained. “Your names and dates will be engraved and the stone will be stored until the time of need.”
“Dates?” I asked. “Plural? Do we get to choose the date of our deaths?”
“Um,” the poor man seemed flummoxed. “Date of birth engraved now. Date of death filled in later.”
The stone would be stored? My mind played with that idea and I turned to Ken.
“Maybe we should keep the bronze plaque at home. I’m thinking the slab would make a one-of-a-kind coffee table. You know, add legs and a glass top. Voila! Quite the conversation starter.”
We didn’t need another coffee table, and I seemed to be the only one in the room who was amused.
Fast forward to the present.
My dog loves walking through the gold rush era cemetery here in Nevada City. I try to tell myself it’s the trees full of squirrels that interest her, not the ground full of bones. We wander through the leaf-strewn area, taking in the less-than-subtle arrangement of burial sites. The lower level has rows of nameless wooden crosses and markers in various stages of decay and disrepair. The land at the uphill edge has family plots enclosed by wrought iron fences. Stone markers cite names and dates going back to the 1850s.
A single monument, the bigger-than-life focus at the heart of the property, marks the final resting place of Aaron Augustus Sargent, 1827-1887. The back of his shrine reads “Printer, Lawyer, Senator, Minister, Plenipotentiary.” Mr. Sargent was the author of Congress’ Pacific Railroad Act. But even more noteworthy, according to Wikipedia, he “introduced the 29 words that would later become the 19th Amendment … allowing women the right to vote.” It seems the senator’s wife was a close friend of suffragette Susan B. Anthony, and quite persuasive.
Standing in the quiet of the deserted cemetery, I memorized the spelling of “plenipotentiary” so I could consult my Funk and Wagnalls back at home. Turns out, good old Aaron was the US emissary to Germany. The term refers to such dignitaries who wield the powers of the Federal government while abroad. How’s that for a word of the week?
I learned two things from the senator. First, if Ken listened to me like A. A. Sargent listened to his wife, I’d have a very unique coffee table. Second, I need to find some obscure words to add to the back of my tombstone in order to amuse and inform future generations. Those words will mean “odd sense of humor” and “annoyingly persistent.”