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In Memoriam




Natalie remembers standing in front of the house, boxes piled up around her on the walkway.

Behind her, her father supervises the movers closely. Their furniture has made it this far without incurring damage and he is determined to maintain the status quo. Her mother stands beside her, weary and seemingly enveloped by the silence that surrounds their new home. Silence, this degree of it, is not something Natalie is used to, but she loves it for its newness and the promises it holds. Things will happen in this house; things which will stand out from what has come before.

“Well, at least the neighbours will be quiet,” her mother says, looking at the short, green hedge on the property line with vague distaste.

It is at this moment that Natalie realizes this will be the house she thinks of whenever she thinks of home.

*

The saddest and most profound gravestone in the cemetery belongs to Esther and Lily and Mary. The stone had been white, once. Years of rain and snow have found the grey hidden within and brought the colour to the front. It’s wider than most of the others, the better to accommodate the stories of the three girls it memorializes. The face of the stone is pitted and cracks threaten to split it in half if the coming winter’s snow is heavy.

At first, she thinks the stone is chalk. It’s crumbly and worn, like a piece of sidewalk chalk dragged too hard sideways over asphalt. She feels bad for Esther and Lily and Mary; that the inscriptions which mark their short lives should be so easily wiped out. When she is older, she will discover that the stone is in fact marble, and that marble’s lesson is that everything decays. For now, she only feels sad that someday Esther and Lily and Mary will be washed away.

*
She remembers standing in the backyard, looking over the fence at the sunlit green of the grass and the muted colours of the stones.

Inside, her father sits at his drafting table surrounded by endless pictures and plans of the bridge he has come here to build. It isn’t the first time he’s moved his family for a project, but he hopes it will be the last. This house is almost perfect. Her mother decorates the living room in such a way that leads the eye away from the windows. The hedge isn’t high enough to block the view.

“Where’s Natalie?” her father asks without looking up.

“She’s in the yard,” her mother replies.

She isn’t.

*

Esther and Mary must have died at the same time. Their two-thirds of the stone bears one poem, dedicated to them both. Lily gets her own inscription, faded so badly it’s hardly readable, but she must have died soon afterward, because the stone is all one piece. What makes it sad is that Mary’s age must be given in months, and Esther and Lily’s years combined are only ten.

They are not Natalie’s imaginary friends. They’re too young, to begin with, and too old at the end. She finds herself wondering, anyway, what they would do if they were alive next door. They don’t have birth or death dates, only ages as an unfixed point in time, but she knows they would be old today by the state of the stone. She wonders if it is confusing to be young and old at the same time.

*

She remembers making the first rubbing; purple crayon scraped carefully on a summer morning.

Her father doesn’t ask her why she needs to use his drafting paper, only smiles and hands her a stack of varying sizes. Her mother, finally content with the living room, asks her if she would like to use her drawings to help decorate the kitchen.

“You could put them up on the wall,” her mother says, sun streaming around her through wide, uncurtained windows that look out on the road.

“I don’t think they’ll match,” Natalie replies, looking at the paint chips on the counter.

She wonders if purple might have been a bad choice, but black was too dark and every other colour felt somehow taken.

*

People write the most amazing things in stone. The cemetery is full of words of love and comfort, and only lightly marred by regret. It’s not a bad legacy and it is the only record that Esther and Lily and Mary were ever here. Their stone isn’t pretty anymore, but it would have shone white and clean while their parents were still alive. There’s no last name, so it’s difficult to tell who their parents were. With no family name and no dates, Esther and Lily and Mary are adrift in eternity with only each other for company.

Natalie thinks that there are worse places to be, but she makes rubbings of all of the grave markers in the vicinity, looking for a best guess. She can’t put her pictures on the wall, not yet, because her parents won’t understand. She keeps them rolled up in a tube, but she takes them out to look at them every day. She’ll have them for a while, anyway. She knows better than to think paper is forever when she can see that stone is not.

*

She remembers standing in her room, drafting paper laid out all around her, when her mother opens the door.

Her father builds bridges. He tries to reach her, and offers to show her how to draw the stones to scale. He has always made things fit into a plan. Her mother says nothing for a long time. The silence comes full circle, turning from something full of promise to something cold and empty. With a jolt, Natalie realizes that this is how her mother has always felt; that where she sees potential, her mother sees distant memories and a chilling morbidity.

“Why do you do this?” her mother asks finally.

“Because it makes me sad.”

It’s the wrong answer, but it’s also the truth.

*

There are symbols everywhere in the cemetery; signs that tie people together in ways not immediately apparent. In a corner filled with the marks of Oddfellows and Orangemen, of Daughters of the Empire and Sisters of the Order of the Eastern Star, this is how Natalie finally finds Esther and Lily and Mary’s parents. In the stone arch above each girl’s name is carved a horn with a flower blooming out of it. She finds the symbol again, worn almost flat and covered by rarely cut grass, at the bottom of the tombstone shared by Edward and Eleanor O’Brien.

She doesn’t find it anywhere else, and it makes her glad to know that Edward and Eleanor buried their daughters so well that only someone who truly cared would find them. Natalie does the rubbings of both stones again in charcoal. It’s a soulless and unfeeling medium, but it captures details her colours miss. She folds the grey away for reference, never removing it from the tube, and keeps the coloured versions to look at.

*

She remembers standing in front of the house, boxes piled around her on the walkway.

Her father has gone ahead with the moving van, ever vigilant in the face of potential disaster. His bridge is done and now he will go to the next one, taking his family with him. Her mother loads the car, chattering away in the fragmented silence about all the new friends Natalie will make after they are settled into their new house. The hedge didn’t grow quickly enough, and her mother pretends not to notice the tube Natalie clutches in her arms.

“We’ll stay in the new place for longer,” her mother says as the car pulls out of the driveway.

Natalie looks in the side mirror and sees for the first and last time three figures in white, one so small she has to be carried.

She holds her memorial close, and smiles.

*

To the various permutations of the O'Brien family. Who shared their house and their history with an impressionable girl, and especially to Lesley O'Brien, who was awesome and witty to the end.

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October 2011

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