Cemetery Tales (Part 1)

In Finnish language class last week, I learned that the word for November, “Marraskuu,” means “death moon,” or “month of death.” I can’t say I was surprised. My father had died suddenly of coronary arrest a few days before Thanksgiving, a tragic memory that continues to reverberate sixteen years later. Both Veteran’s Day and Remembrance Day fall in November and honor those who perished while serving their countries. November even starts with All Saint’s Day, when family members visit the gravesites of their loved ones to light candles and lay fir wreaths. These burial plots are tidied up, the wet leaves raked and discarded. Visitors bring lawn chairs, drink coffee from thermoses, and remember the deceased with tears and laughter.

Since I have no blood relatives in Finland, this tradition isn’t part of my November ritual. However, on rainy, windy days like today, one glance at the slippery, leaf-covered sidewalks and darkened tree trunks is enough to conjure up that heart-wrenching visit to Maple Grove Cemetery years ago.

In November of 2004, my husband, Otto, and I flew from Helsinki to Boston and traveled to Amherst to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday. My father had died shortly after her 69th, so we knew this milestone would be difficult for her to endure without the love and support of family members. Over the weekend, she drove us to Long Island, where we spent the day with her much-younger brother, John, and his family. I thought we might stay overnight there, but soon after Black Forest cake was served, Mom announced that we were leaving because she had a “surprise detour” planned for Otto and me.

I reminded her of the four-hour journey back to Amherst and how she disliked driving at night, but she insisted that she’d be fine because Otto and I were with her. After opening the last of her birthday presents from my uncle and his family, the three of us left and squeezed back into her Ford Fiesta. She headed south on the Van Wyck Expressway and exited at Kew Gardens in Queens—why, I had no idea. At the end of Lefferts Boulevard, which dead-ended at Maple Grove Cemetery, she swerved the car through the stone pillar entrance and pulled into the parking lot.

“But Halloween was last month,” I said with a nervous giggle.

“No worries, Linda. Oma and Opa are buried here, remember?” she said, referring to her German grandparents, Maria and Franz Huttner. “You haven’t been here since you were a young girl and we moved Upstate. I thought Otto might want to see the family plot, too.”

“Of course,” I said, still a little wary.

During my childhood, Mom had often mentioned Maple Grove and the “beautiful, sacred spot located on a slope under a towering oak tree,” where Oma and Opa lay. She had adored her doting grandparents, the kind struggling immigrants who had settled in Queens and raised her as a child while her parents worked long shifts at a nearby bakery.

My great-grandparents, Franz and Maria Huttner

Mom’s cornflower-blue eyes would sparkle, as they did that day in November, when recalling her fondest memories of afternoons spent in their care after school: strolls with Oma down Liberty Avenue in her quest for the freshest head cheese and blutwurst from Krauss’s Butcher Shop, the sweetest butter from Ratner’s Deli; the delightful aroma of Opa’s homemade pflaumenkuchen (plum cake), which he served at the Sunday soirees he and Oma hosted for the entire Huttner clan after church. Mom raved about her talented Uncle Frank, who led singalongs on his violin, with Aunt Hedwig accompanying the George Gershwin and Irving Berlin tunes on piano. My grandmother, Marion, added her sweet soprano voice as my grandfather beamed with pride from the armchair.

Mom always ended these recollections by telling me how much she missed “those dear people” and how it’s “so difficult to be the survivor.” I sensed that this trip to Maple Grove was very important to her and suggested we start at the Visitor’s Center. Unfortunately, it was closed.

“I don’t need directions, dear,” Mom said, patting my arm. “Oma and Opa are buried in the Linden section. As if I could forget!”

Without a flashlight or other light source, she led us to nearby Linden, where we passed through a dell surrounded by gently sloping hills. Many oak trees matched her “towering” description, but it was impossible to know the exact one marking the family plot. We went up and down rows of tombstones, which were covered in wet leaves due to recent rainstorms, making it difficult to read the surnames of the deceased. Undeterred, Mom pulled up her light brown winter coat and began crawling on her hands and knees from one to the next, pushing the leaves aside in search of the name “Huttner.” Otto and I joined in, but as the November dusk quickly descended, the task proved more challenging.

After thirty minutes of futile searching, Mom slumped against a tree and began sobbing. I rushed over to comfort her, but she stood up and turned away in silence. Otto and I watched her slouch back toward the parking lot and followed her with a sinking feeling. We discussed how, during the past week, we’d noticed more repetition of her long-ago family stories. She also seemed obsessed with her car keys and left post-it notes on the kitchen cabinets and bathroom mirrors with reminders to bring the Ford to the mechanic or to go to BankNorth. When we found the stovetop still on after she’d gone to sleep one night, we considered that Mom’s behavior might be indicative of early-stage dementia. Sadly, this was the case.

Three years later, my mother was diagnosed with “rapidly progressing dementia” and moved to The Arbors, an assisted-living facility in Amherst. She still drove locally but was no longer able to make the journey to Queens or Long Island. A year later, she stopped driving all together.

At this point in her illness, Mom couldn’t remember what she’d eaten for lunch but could still play challenging piano pieces from her teenage repertoire by memory, including her signature one, “Malaguena.” As strains of this Spanish song, along with “Desert Song” and “Deep Purple” (“Huttner favorites,” she told me) wafted through the hallways of The Arbors, residents and their caregivers gravitated to the communal living room, where Mom was serenading her enthralled fans on the grand piano.

As my mother’s condition worsened over the next decade and she needed a higher level of dementia care, the Huttner tales stopped, making me increasingly heavyhearted that she hadn’t been able to visit the family plot one last time while still mobile and cognizant. Although I still lived overseas and my trips to the States were now limited to visiting her in Massachusetts, I was determined to return to Maple Grove in New York on her behalf and in the process, turn my sorrowful memories into something positive.

And I did.

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To be continued…

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