September 14, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
Yesterday I walked in the City of the Dead.
That’s how I always feel when I’m in a cemetery; like the tombstones are houses and hotels on a Monopoly board, only large and heavy. I know I am not to imagine anyone inside them, like I used to do when I played Monopoly – though none of the tokens made appropriate residents. Possibly the pegs on the Game of Life could have lived on the Monopoly board, but not the Hat or the Dog or the Shoe.
Nor should I really focus on what’s underneath those stones, though that’s often where my Kid Brain goes. (The worms go in, the worms go out, the worms pay pinochle on your snout…) The focus is to be on remembering and celebrating those we have lost.
There is no one buried in this cemetery that I personally have lost.
Unless you count Paul Wellstone, the U.S. Senator from Minnesota who represented “the democratic wing of the Democratic party” and who died so tragically with his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia and five others in a plane crash in 2002. At the time I was a grant writer at the Minnesota AIDS Project, which had a strong public policy program, in large part because of people who had worked with, and deeply loved, Paul and Sheila Wellstone. I remember exactly where I was when I learned this, and who I was with. So that feels personal.
But I was not taking a walk to pay my respects to the Wellstones – though I did find the simplicity of that monument moving, particularly in contrast to its neighbor. I suspect the Twins Stadium would have been enough of a memorial for Mr. Pohlad. Perhaps his sons felt otherwise.
I went walking in the City of the Dead because I am to tell stories there at a Lantern Lighting Ceremony. Stories for children.
This is a first time event for the cemetery. We know about 143 lantern-making kits have been pre-reserved. But how many children will be there, and what age ranges will be there, is a big unknown. So it’s a little difficult to get a grip on what they may or may not be interested in. I have been asked to do historical material, stories of lives well lived. The best I have been able to do so far is to try to imagine myself a kid again, and figure out what would be interesting to me.
I pick up the self-guided walking tour brochure, and I put my Kid Brain on.
Kid Brain is interested in the Memorial Chapel that is a scaled down version of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a structure that appears to be impervious to earthquakes and at one time contained four acres of mosaics. Perhaps the architectural impulse to miniaturize a larger monument is in itself a childlike one. Kid Brain asks Adult Brain to buy her a Hagia Sophia Lego kit in the gift shop. Or at least the Polly Pocket. AB promises KB a free trolley ride instead.
KB is interested in the reflective “pool,” in front of the Garden Mausoleum, which is really more of a water sculpture, creating a shimmering surface over an array of tiles. But she tugs on AB’s skirt and ask why they call it a pool if you can’t swim in it. You can’t even really wade in it. Then she asks for pennies to make a wish with, and AB has to say no, and reminds KB about the trolley ride.
Kid Brain finds it interesting to see names on monuments she has seen before.
Names on street and highway signs (Blaisdell and Pillsbury and Olson); on cities (Fridley); on parks (Loring, Wirth) on high schools (Washburn), even airport terminals (Humphrey). KB knows the Presidents – she has a ruler with their pictures on them – but the Vice Presidents are a little hazy. She asks if that’s Humphrey the Camel.
On the whole Kid Brain wonders about really inappropriate things for a Lantern Lighting ceremony.
Like whether those big birds walking among the graves are vultures (They are not. They are wild turkeys.) And whether the Civil War era cannon at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial would be useful in a zombie attack. (Ask the CDC.) And where the mallet for the gong on the Chinese Community Memorial is. (In a safe place.)
And Babyland. Kid Brain really wants to know about Babyland.
The self-guided walking tour provides a number and a location, but no explanation for Babyland at all. It is row upon row upon row of tiny graves, surrounding a statue of Jesus suffering children to come unto him.
Why does Jesus take so many children? Does he take the Jewish and Muslim children too? Why aren’t they buried with their families? Are they having a Time Out?
The Internet tells AB that many other cemeteries have such sections reserved for “stillbirths, infants and small children.” It leads her to a documentary exposé about the high death rate of African American infants in Memphis, where Babyland is the section of the public cemetery for babies whose parents can afford no other burial. And to a bizarre feature on Babyland General Hospital, where they – ahem – grow Cabbage Patch Dolls.
Of course I do not have to tell that story.
I can tell a story about Frank C. Mars, whose mother home schooled him because he was too weak from polio to walk to school, and taught him how to dip chocolate. I can pass out Milky Ways. Kid Brains – and Kid Tummies – will love this.
Or about Clara Ueland – who among many other things important to ABs, like founding the Minnesota League of Women Voters, helped secure child labor laws and started the Minneapolis kindergarten system. (In case your AB is wondering, she was also the mother of Brenda Ueland, author of the classic If You Want to Write, whose memoir I happen to be reading now.)
Or I can talk about interesting bits of memorial symbolism like Tui Snider does on her blog – ivy vines and sheafs of wheat, honeysuckle, flaming torches, a ship passing through gates. Symbols are like secret decoder rings. Kids like those.
But part of me wonders if our desire to entertain and edify children here is a little off center.
A little off center like these photos I took with the sun in my eyes.
This morning I listened to my daughter preach at Hamline United Methodist Church, where she is a youth minister. I am not entirely comfortable in the church these days, for reasons that are a little complicated. But at one time I was very involved in ministry to children, and I have deep respect for their own inner spirituality.
I like to think that is one of the reasons I have this glorious young woman for a daughter. And a fiercely principled, deeply generous son.
A portion of our conversation after the service touched on children’s worship. And that conversation made me think of something that I don’t usually think of when preparing for a storytelling gig.
I wondered when they get to tell their stories.
To celebrate. To remember. I wonder how to build in time to listen to them.
Fortunately I am not telling stories alone. I will be with an incredibly talented young woman who works with Kid Brains all the time. At lunch with her tomorrow, I will do a wise thing I am still learning to do.
You guessed it. More listening.