My family raised me to be a unique kid. By the time I tried to mainstream it with the Girl Scouts, I was already listing my favorite film as Harold and Maud. Guess who didn’t make that movie night suggestion on her own? To this day I still haven’t seen the classic 80’s kids movies like The Goonies. But I’ve seen the PBS documentary about the Donner Party more times than I can remember.
Death was always present in my childhood but not in a bad way. Trips to the cemetery were something to look forward to because we always stopped by the Dairy Queen on the way home. And stuffing your kids with chemical ice cream-like substances is one normal American tradition my family embraced.
I’ve been to a lot of cemeteries. But the one where I’ve racked up the most frequent visits is the Charleroi Cemetery.
Charleroi, Pennsylvania is the town outside of Pittsburgh where my mom’s family is from. Its nickname is The Magic City, and it’s about as fitting of a title as Baltimore’s Charm City mantle.
But it is, in my mind, the quintessential American town. I’m sure kids growing up in California or Alaska have their own version of what a quintessential American town looks like. However, all my relatives own real estate in Pennsylvania cemeteries (trust me, I’ve been there) and that’s helped form my image of America.
When my great-grandparents, immigrants from Ireland and Germany, were living in the area, the town was filled with glass factories and coal mines. My grandparents spent their free time in drinking establishments celebrating the melting pot culture with simple names like the Belgium Club or the French Club. If they got tired of those, they could work their way over to places with more clever names, like The Four Aces, or my favorite, Sit n’ Bull.
I can’t tell you if Sit n’ Bull has anything to do with the notable Native American leader Sitting Bull, but I can tell you that no one ever had to explain to me that bull shitting was another term for hanging out and talking. I heard the term enough that my young mind just absorbed it without question.
Sometimes adults would abbreviate it to B.S.’ing, but that was done mostly to shorten the length of the word, and had nothing to do with protecting children’s ears. I remember standing on a chair to answer the rotary dial phone in my grandma’s kitchen when her sister, who lived up the hill in the house where they were all born, would call asking what she was up to that day. I would scream the question to my grandma watching soap operas in the other room (it would be years before my civilized friends trained me not to do that anymore). She would reply, “Just B. S.’ing with Norma,” and cute little me dressed in candy colored corduroys would parrot it back over the phone and that would be the end of the call.
Norma’s full name was Norma Jean, but having stayed in one town her whole life, she had no need to change her name to Marilyn, like that other Norma Jean, Ms. Monroe.
Norma’s probably up in the Charleroi Cemetery now, too, just like the rest of the town.
The Cemetery’s on a hill outside of town and I mostly remember driving up there with my grandma and her sister when the weather was warm. We’d drive up their to plant fresh flowers on the family graves. But we did other stuff, too, like gossip about the dead people or pick through the trash to find discarded artificial flowers that we could reuse in new arrangements.
Sometimes I would wander around and scope out the different tomb artwork. My favorite graves were the ones with the porcelain photos on them from the early 1900’s. Some of them had little metal plates protecting the image that you had to raise to look at. I thought they were beautiful. The photographs were closely followed by my second favorite tomb art, the carved stone lambs sitting on top of the grave marker. A child myself, I didn’t yet know that these were reserved for the graves of children, I just thought the animals were cool.
Charleroi is a small town where everybody knows everybody, the living and the dead. My grandma and her sister would point to the graves and talk about who died in the war or who had affairs with their neighbors. Or who was just crazy. Turns out most people fell into the crazy category. There was also a category for the “really crazy” people, like the woman who never left her house, but would stand on her balcony in her nightgown all day long yelling at her daughter. I wish I could remember the details of all the stories. I could make millions off of the movie rights.
One of the family stories that often got retold was the time my great aunt surprised a groundhog while she was peeing at the edge of the cemetery. If you need a mental picture of this woman, imagine a hefty woman, with the sweetest smiling face who prefers snap up muumuus at home and grey cotton sweat suits when she leaves the house.
During a flower planting trip she walked over to the edge of the cemetery to squat over a hole and answer the call of nature. She looked into the hole, saw a fuzzy head and bright white teeth looking up at her, and let out a scream so loud her sister thought she was being mugged or something. I don’t know what type of person would hang out in a cemetery waiting to mug the old ladies planting flowers, but apparently that’s an option in the category of “Things to fear in one’s life.”
This was a story I heard a lot. When other kids talk about playing Mario Brothers video games as children or going on sailing trips, I wonder how I could have grown up in the same decade. Sure there were computers in my school and I watched cable tv at home, but when it came time to visit relatives in Charleroi, I got sucked into a parallel universe where we picnicked at the cemetery and when it was time to sit on Santa’s lap, we did that at a bar, not the mall.
Not that I can’t see the positive qualities of these experiences. First of all, cemeteries and death in general doesn’t creep me out. It’s just the natural life cycle, and I accept it like the fact we replant the flowers on graves each year after the old ones die out.
But it did create some habits that separate me from the general population. For example, it feels weird to me to go to a cemetery for a funeral since most of the time I’m there to dig in the earth. (Well, there was one family funeral where we brought a shovel, but I later found out that was illegal, even if you’re beloved’s been cremated. So, there’s that incident inching me closer to hillbilly-dom.)
The other thing is I’m hard wired to expect Dairy Queen ice cream after checking out some graves. On the road between my grandma’s house and the cemetery was a Dairy Queen, and after a long afternoon of planting flowers or weeding under the hot sun, we’d stop for dessert, pretty much every time.
Apparently these visits hard wired something in my grandma, too. She came to think of soft served vanilla ice cream in a cone as a “dairy queen,” and whenever we’d pull into other drive thrus, like a MacDonald’s or Arby’s, she’d yell at the menu board that she wanted a “dairy queen.” And then get really pissed at the teenager on the other side who didn’t deliver. So I’d lean over grandma and scream out the window that we wanted vanilla ice cream in a cone. And I’d have to scream really loud, too, to drowned out my grandma’s voice yelling, “God damn it, I said I wanted a dairy queen!”
Because sometimes that’s what it means to be a dutiful child: helping your family order ice cream outside of their comfort zone after a lifetime of cemeteries and Dairy Queens.