Not many hills in Northern Missouri, but plenty of soft dips and ditches and highs and lows and ups and arounds. Green grass like velvet, smelling like happy, meeting up with blue skies colored deep like Grandma’s Sunday apron. And nearly every one of them, at the very tip top, which remember is never very far from the deepest lowest low, are dustings of memories, evenly mowed, neatly clipped, freshly gravelled gardens joys and sorrows, lives lived and lives come to an end. A sanctuary. A haven. A memorial ground.
Crown Hill Cemetery.
And for me, growing up carefree and unburdened, this luscious green parkland of oaks and elms and soft sweet grass was my playground. Nothing quite beats a game of Tag or Hide and Go Seek around and amongst the matrix marbled headstones of the honored and beloved. Once I convinced my pals and partners to join me. Took some doin’ but was well worth it.
Respectful, but probably not on purpose, we did no harm but revel in our freedom. To my own dying day I’ll believe those resting their appreciate the light-hearted attention. Kept those resting there alive, somehow.
That the Crown Hill Memorial Lawns and Cemetery lay halfway between my three bedroom, one and half bath, one car garage ranch style home, the one mirroring the five hundred others in our midwest 1960s subdivision, and my elementary school, all brick, sleek and long and low in the protected hollow of three rises, gave me my claim.
Early of a misty schoolday morning, I’d sling my red plaid satchel over my shoulder and across my chest, for easy maneuverability. Fastest kid on my street meant I may have to defend my honor and my position at any time. Allan James, a year younger, was itching to make his move. Plus, I heard he had new red and white PF Flyers. I had to be ever ready, unencumbered.
My nearly white Keds, laces removed for cool, stomped with purpose off the cement drive making a sharp left onto the new black asphalt of our little cul-de-sac, marching nearly a block to the top of the street. As the day gathered steam, that asphalt would warm to cooking, the black sticky stinky tar slowing my dash back down the hill and back home come the deepening shadows of afternoon.
Momma’d make me leave my shoes outside.
Morning trek, though, was easy, sticky-free. Once to the top of our road, was Crown Hill, a dusty, crumbling little thoroughfare, but with two lanes and a white line down its middle, it was a road going somewhere. And would have taken me to school, had I opted to go the “good citizen” route, the “Girl Scout” route, the long way around.
Those shady shade trees, early day breezes lifting the leaves in waves, then back, the even hedges speckled with sun and shadow, along with freshly painted silver railings and statues of angels with gentle smiles and open arms never once gave me pause. The shortcut through the cemetery was a daily treat. ‘Twas my own garden walk, fragrances new at every turn, white rock pathways crunching under my thin little soles, making my day’s beginning better’n anybody in my third grade class, I was sure.
Enter at the gates alongside the MacVey Mausoleum, brushing my hands lightly over the lavender bushes, thriving around its hewn stone base for who knows how long, stepping lively down the path, then turning left at “B. Hancock (b. 1899 d. 1959),” old, white and chipped. From there a little sashay around the sparkly duck pond, left or right, it didn’t matter, edged with waving rushes and standup tall cattails, then on to the O’Dell plot, just to the hilltops edge where I could stop and look down over the roof of my school, often measuring by the number of children loitering outside the classes just how much more meandering time I had left.
Time spent at the O’Dell plot was time well spent, though. Lots of O’Dells in our little town, I gathered, and plenty of room for them to gather here, too. Flowers was their specialty, all sorts and all shades of the rainbow. Fresh ones cut just so and arranged just so were tucked in little vases grasped by shiny metal tongs, screwed in tight to the stones. Some got changed nearly every day, though I seldom saw it done. Some were planted with bushes sprouting pretty pink and violet flowers opening to the day. A few rose bushes, thorny and hard to hide behind, protected the border of husbands and wives and often the sadder littler stones noting the passing of little children. I chose to hop quick past those, the only saddening part of my mobile repose. Appearing the more aged and venerable the stone, the more ornate the ornamentation, I most often found myself there. Toward the edges, though, some latter-day O’Dells slapped down dingy plastic blossoms from the Ben Franklin, wrapped with rotting rubber bands, now pink with age, dusty and faded and old.
I’d lift my nose. I preferred Cemetery aristocracy.
I made a point of reading every name of every stone I passed. My way of greeting them, thanking them for their graciousness, as they’d, many of them, become my friends. My pesky little brother, three humongous years younger, once told sneered, telling me I sometimes read them out loud. I didn’t mind, not one iota.
Time getting away from me, as often my shortcut became anything but, I’d gear up, suck in a deep breath, let my legs go and rightly tear down the side of the hill, onto the school property, breathing only, I was sure,when I reached the bottom.
I’d arrive in class just in time, smelling of fruit trees and fresh-cut grass. If I concentrated, I could conjure those aromas clear up until first recess, or if the groundskeeper up top got a head start on mowing, the fragrance and sounds stayed with me until I opened my red plaid Thermos at lunch.
And once the final bell rang, I’d dash back up that little hill, find a new path to saunter through, dawdle here and there, and once again greet my silent friends.