Spring is in the air and I am surrounded by death. The countless small white headstones seem so clean, neat, tidy – each a small but insignificant reminder that a person once lived. I come here often but still get lost among the sea of stones. An old oak tree stood tall near my mother’s grave until a hungry fungus made it as lifeless as the departed who lie beneath my feet.
I have come to this vast military cemetery to visit my mother’s grave. She was married to a United States Marine who fought in the Second World War, and every soldier is entitled to a small piece of the land they once defended. I miss the shade and comfort of the familiar oak tree, but a map provided by the visitor center led me to her gravestone.
April 8 1930
May 3 1970
Wife of PFC John Mullen
USMC World War II
My mother’s stone is cold and hard and completely still. It brings me no solace as I touch its weathered surface because I can no longer hold her the hand that bears the stone’s name. I last saw my Mom as she lay dying on our kitchen floor. I thought she had fainted because the oven door was open and the room was very hot. I did not know that a cerebral artery burst and had taken her life, forever leaving a nine-year-old boy puzzled about the role serendipity played in death.
My mother’s funeral mass was crowded with friends and family, and my hurriedly purchased suit did not fit well. I remember staring at her casket and wondering if she was wearing her favorite blue dress. I wanted to open the casket and place a photograph of my brother and me in her hands but was afraid to look at a dead person. I watched the hearse take my mother away to a place called Long Island, and later was taken to a neighbor’s house. I always regretted not leaving the pew and placing the photograph in my mother’s hands.
The Scots are strange mourners. Some treat the dead as though they have never left, and others pretend the dead never lived. I grew up never seeing a photograph of my mother or learning about her brief life. She died and then she disappeared. But the small gravestone in front of me is proof that she once lived and had two small boys who called her Mom.
It’s the time between Easter and Mother’s day and the cemetery should be more crowded, but a cold rain keeps people away and only a few mourners stand solemnly under umbrellas. It is a perfect day to speak with my mother.
A lot happened has happened over the past few years, Mom. I was invited to the White House and met the president; he was friendly and joked with your youngest grandson. I met a lot of governors and a few prime ministers of foreign countries. Yes – I even met the prime minister of Great Britain. He too is a Scot and I desperately wanted him to meet you. Can you imagine a poor Scottish girl meeting the prime minister of Great Britain? Funny, huh?
I’m teaching in my same classroom and trying my best to help troubled teenagers. They too live as orphans seeking shelter. I subscribe to one of those ancestry websites and discovered that your mom died when you were nine, and that your father placed you and your two sisters in a bleak orphanage. The good news is the orphanage was torn down in the 1970s, and only the graves of dead children remain at its former location. And guess what happened to your dad? He fled to Edinburgh and lived to be eighty-seven. Prick.
I still try my best to remind people how special teachers are and what they mean to young people, but I grew worn-out eating airport food and sleeping in bland motel rooms. So I exchanged a pulpit and applause for my old SMART Board and a room filled with teenagers.
What did you ask? Yes-I really did meet the President of the United States. But you know that, don’t you? I turned fifty-four this past year. Can you believe your youngest son will shortly be fifty-five? I’m sorry you only lived to be thirty-eight. No, the good do not die young; they die too soon.
What do you want me to remember? What should I say to all the teachers who are mothers? Yes, I do hear what you are saying but the rain is making me wet and you speak so softly. You were once a teacher? I did not know that. Oh…yes… you are correct – every mother is a child’s first teacher, and you were my first teacher. Is that what I should remind all mothers? You were an excellent teacher, Mom.
I need to leave now because your grave saddens me, and your stone is getting too wet. But I will be back when it is warm and new leaves cast life over this dismal place. And I will remind my children that you are my first and most important teacher.
I lift my palm off my mother’s faded gravestone and walk toward my car. My mother was right. She never taught in a classroom but was my first teacher. Every mother is a child’s first teacher, and every good schoolteacher is a legacy of maternal tenderness. Is it any wonder why a teacher is so special in the hearts of children?
Wishing all teachers and mothers a happy Mother’s Day.