how do you like your blueeyed boy Mister Death

Art Medlar

I always enjoy coming back as a tourist to places I used to live. I see things differently when they're not wrapped up in the day-to-day familiarity that living somewhere generates. And as a tourist, it's ok to do things and go places that a resident would hardly ever think of.

I was in Boston just before Christmas, a place I lived for seven years, and left in 1990. I was staying in a house abutting the Forest Hills Cemetery. Dave, my host, is a big fan of this cemetery, the southernmost jewel in Fredrick Law Olmstead's Emerald Necklace which stretches south from the Fenway, past Jamaica Pond and the Arboretum to Franklin Park. It's one of the main reasons he bought this house here on the far outskirts of the city. I had no idea that it even existed back when I was living here.

It's a smaller, younger version of the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, but shares many of the same nice attributes of its big sister across the river: a little lake in the middle, a stone tower, trees from all over the world. It has fewer famous dead people planted underneath, but the ones here include Eugene O'Neill, who ended his long day's journey into night in what is now a Boston University dormitory; Edward Everett Hale, the man I most want to look like when I grow up, if his statue in the Public Garden is any indication of what he was like in life; and the typographically extravagant poet ee cummings.

"You've gotta go find cumming's grave," Dave said to me one afternoon, "you won't be disappointed." "It is a bit hard to find;" he explained, "one of those flat-on-the-ground, unpretentious sorts. It might not be possible in this weather."

But I set out anyway. A light snow was falling, and the late afternoon sun was low in the sky. The giant weeping beech just inside the cemetery's gothic gate had lost its leaves, and the black, bowed branches were holding a load of snow, like some skeletal angel of death watching over the tombstones. Checking the map inside the gate, I determined that his grave was up on the small ridge overlooking the pond. I made a cautious detour around the tree, and headed down the path past the tower.

Up on the ridge, I saw that I might have some trouble finding the headstone. If it was, in fact, one of those ease-of-lawn-maintenance types, it was now under about 2 inches of powder. After making sure that it wasn't one of the taller grave markers, I started brushing off the low lying ones.

It took some time. I have no idea what the plow driver was thinking as he passed the black coated man walking back and forth on the ridge, stooping every few feet to brush away snow; but he didn't stop to see what I was up to. Eventually, through a combination of long-unused mountain search and rescue techniques and pure happenstance, I cleared off a thoroughly nondescript piece of marble, and there it was: the grave of the first poet I ever really enjoyed.

One is supposed to feel some sort of chill at moments like this. But except for the ice in my mittens, I had an entirely different reaction. I laughed. A single, loud "Ha!"; and then quickly looked around, a tad embarrassed, to see if anyone had heard. Was it a simple misunderstanding? A stone carver's error? Or maybe a final joke played on people like me who come out looking for whatever it is that drives us to seek out stranger's gravesites. Staring up at me from the white-covered ground, in neatly cut, four-inch letters, all capitals, was E. E. CUMMINGS.

Copyright © 1996, Art Medlar

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