Kid Brain in Babyland


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.

monopoly pieces

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.

wpid-img_20150912_132308361.jpgKid Brain explodes with questions about Babyland.

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.

13 thoughts on “Kid Brain in Babyland

  1. Diana says:

    I also work with kids (and their brains, most days), and this morning I commended them for making connections between what they were learning/seeing/reading and their own lives. The interesting response to that is that they made an effort to make even more connections, and explain them to me. I was surprised, and did my best not to smother them, although I was also wanting to focus more on what I was presenting. The balancing of the two was a tad interesting.

    As well, I was at a graveside burial service a couple of days ago — and was quite surprised to see that the casket was actually lowered into a sturdy metal box, which was already placed down below. I’m assuming that box stays there and is buried with the casket. Made me wonder about “dust to dust and ashes to ashes” — and whether worms could even make a way in at all. I’d rather have kept believing that tree roots and other plants and things would benefit from the buried body. But don’t quite see this as possible after the glimpse of the box.

    I’m really looking forward to your post about how this event worked out. I’m having a hard time imagining story-telling that isn’t ghost-story related, in a graveyard with lanterns. I’m not exactly a fan of ghost stories these days, although when I was much much younger they were strangely appealing. I love lanterns though!

    Is Mr Wellstone’s wife really named Shelia? You’re consistent with the spelling, and I really like the sound of the name — but it’s not a familiar one. I’m more used to Sheila. The choice of the rock/stone as a grave marker is a lovely one. I don’t think our local graveyards allow for anything other than flat ground-level plaques any more — I think for purposes of mowing the lawn, and for prevention of vandalism. Not too much symbolism in most of the ones I saw yesterday.

    I hope you’re enjoying this whole adventure — and the use of your Kid Brain. I enjoyed this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. stuckinscared says:

    I found myself wary of reading further once I’d read the first line, I wasn’t sure a cemetery was a wise place to take my AB (or KB) ATM. However, drawn by the beauty of the first image I continued, and I’m glad I did. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a beautiful cemetery before, it’s certainly far less depressing than those Iv’e seen here… and it was an interesting read. I (like Diana) am looking forward to hearing your story, once told.

    You write so well, Paula.

    Kimmie x

    PS…My KB would love to meet yours :)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. TanGental says:

    Love this cemeteries have always held a fascination for me Baby land sounds both grim and thought provoking. Around London we have the Magnificent Seven which are Victorian era overspill purpose built cemeteries that ring London and are brilliant to wander around


  4. Judith Post says:

    I found this deeply moving. I enjoy cemeteries, make lists sometimes of unusual names I find on gravestones. My dad died when my older daughter was really little. I’ll never forget that when I took her to the cemetery to see my dad’s grave, she walked halfway between his stone and the next one, and sat down on the dirt with a smile. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me that she was sitting on Grandpa’s lap. It nearly did me in, it was such a beautiful way for her to think of it. I taught elementary school for six years and worked with kids at our church–until I became more of a Christian agnostic than a believer, but I’ve always found kids so amazing. I’m looking forward to hearing about your experience with them with storytelling. Loved the glimpses into the lives you mentioned here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, Judith. That was so lovely that I friend of mine who is a storyteller and read the post commented on your comment to me in an email. I just got so busy trying to write the stories that I didn’t have time to respond. But she loved the lap image…and so do I.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. elainemansfield says:

    Creative and interesting, Paula. I love the perspective and inner conversation. Your walk reminds me of my walks in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY when my husband was in the hospital across the road. Kid Brain was not much in evidence then, but she loved the old trees and the crow flocks in the snow. She loved finding Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas and leaving acorns at their graves.

    i’ll enjoy finding out which stories you tell. My two cents: I hope the children can say the name of someone they love who has died–a grandparent, a parent, a friend, a pet–followed by a small gesture to honor that person. Acorns? Building a pile of small stones? The setting is rich with opportunities for understanding communal loss. I’ll stop now. It’s your gig, not mine. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • In fact we had a grand total of three people in the audience at the storytelling tent, for a variety of reasons I explained in this week’s post. But I agree with everything you said. The young woman who set it up asked for feedback, and what I told her is very similar to what you said here.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] many of you know, I was scheduled yesterday to tell stories to children at a lantern lighting ceremony at Lakewood Cemetery. There were not a lot of people at the storytelling tent, probably because we […]


  7. Norah says:

    I’m late coming to this one, Paula, so I’ll probably leave commenting until reading your follow-up, other than to say I wouldn’t have considered telling stories to children in a cemetery! I guess it depends on the ages of the children. I enjoyed your Mars story and that of Clara Ueland and child labour. I think children could identify with those. I enjoy your use of Kid Brain.


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