On Sunday afternoons, mid-summer, when my oldest son was eight, we rode our bikes down DeWitt Street to Green Lawn Cemetery where we’d take the half-mile loop. The first half was flat and asphalted. Here the gravestones were new, none older than twenty years, some as recent as yesterday.
There were afternoons when we’d pass a line of cars and mourners in black crowding around a gravesite, other days we’d ride by a solitary old man planting geraniums or a young couple pruning a rose bush between two headstones while young children rolled in the grass.
On Veteran’s Days there were American flags posted next to many of the stones. When the wind blew, I imaged soldiers marching down Fifth Avenue.
The backside of the loop wound through a strand of trees. Here the road was gravel, the scene rustic yet many of the graves were elaborate – angels reaching to the sky, Jesus on the cross, Stars of David.
And there were rows of simple headstones, leaning this way and that like bad teeth but the print was simple and easy to read – Evelyn Walls 1829-1901, Robert Sadler 1788-1831, Gustav Ambsinbaum 1790-1865.
One August afternoon, as we pedaled out of the dusty back loop, onto the asphalt, my son asked if the people were still there. I could tell by his expression that he was asking what it was like to lay in the dark, day in and day out.
“Only the bodies. Their souls are alive someplace else.” I told him, surprised by the surety in my voice.
“Where?” he asked. “Where are the souls?”
We were at the cemetery gate, about to cross back onto DeWitt Street.
“I don’t know,” I said with the same surety.
His slight nod as he turned his attention to crossing the street conveyed that he bought what I said.
As we pedaled home, I had the feeling that I had just discovered something important about faith and belief but I couldn’t get by arms around it then and, even today, I find it difficult to adequately describe what happened.
The best I can say is that I believe in riding bikes with young children on summer afternoons.
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