At Work Lessons from My Mother, the Grave Gardener
I witnessed my mother work twice as hard as the men under the hot sun. All she had were her hands.
All it took was one drive past a cemetery with friends for me to realize that my relationship with graveyards is unconventional. While they’d pinch their noses and puff out their cheeks to make it clear that breath was being held within—so spirits wouldn’t be able to “get inside” them—I’d look on, puzzled. I couldn’t understand why one would fear cemeteries and their entombed inhabitants. After all, I grew up inside their gates, playing amongst the crypts and watching my mother tend to her clients.
My place within these burial grounds was affixed before I was born, when my parents concluded that childcare was out of the question and my mother quit her job as a florist. The plan was for my father to continue working while my mother watched over me at home. The only obstacle: My mom loved her job and wanted to continue her work in whatever capacity she could.
This led us to the cemetery. With her sunflower-patterned gardener’s gloves, I’d sit on a towel nearby and study my mom as she plunged her hands into the rich earth before a headstone. A pail by her side was used to collect weeds, dead flowers, and any trash that had gotten caught on the stone. If there was an eternal candle, I’d use a spigot to fill up a small bucket with water so she could wash its holder. Once a wasp hiding behind a candle flew out when my mom jostled its enclosure, stinging me above the brow and subsequently revealing that I’m not deathly allergic like she is. More often than not, we’d bring along a carton of fresh flowers and, taking turns with her gloves, Mom would let me plant a few blooms when I wasn’t busy asking questions.
Since my mother started bringing me to the graveyard a few months after I was born, I had no concept of what I was getting into. Everything I grew to understand about cemeteries I learned from her. I wanted to know about her clients, how they died, what it meant to die, why they were buried there, and—for some reason—what happened to them at night. (My young mind saw death and nighttime as two of a kind.)
To her credit, my mom never censored herself, always answering me honestly and emphasizing that death was nothing to fear. I fondly remember the time she looked up from her work to explain, “The people beneath the grass cannot hurt you, nor do they want to. You are safe here with me.”
My mom continued to educate me on death culture as the months turned into years, mainly touching upon how religion and culture intersect with death, and how there is no “right way” to commemorate one’s passing. Even so, I tended to steer the conversation back to the pre-mortem details, always wanting to know what happened in the minutes before her clients died. I was fascinated with those final moments and, when she was equipped with answers, my mother humored me—even when others discouraged her.
No matter what cemetery she was working in for the day, my mom was, without fail, the only woman performing maintenance. Every other worker was a man who was there to dig a grave, give a tour, or move the earth with heavy machinery. During one of my impromptu lessons on all things death and dying, one of the laborers overheard my mom explaining how a client of hers had passed away.
“You shouldn’t be telling her such things,” he commented. “She’s too young. You’ll scare her.”
“She’s strong,” my mom replied, gesturing to me before turning back to her work and resuming her explanation. She made it clear that the conversation was over before it even began.
There’s a lot I don’t remember from this time in my life, but one thing that remains clear in my memory is my mother’s power. Though my father wanted her to stay home, she rebelled because she wanted her choices to be her own. When she was the only woman amongst men, I witnessed her work twice as hard under the hot sun without any special equipment. All she had were her hands. My mom fought back in her own way to continue doing the work she loved and, in the process, she raised a daughter who wanted to do the same. A daughter who wanted her choices to be her own, who wanted a power all her own.
While growing up in graveyards acclimated me to the idea of death, it did not prepare me for when I’d have to face death. Yes, I spent a stretch of my formative years surrounded by cemeteries, but those grounds were not my home. They felt separate from my inner world and sanctuary, until they weren’t when, at age thirteen, I witnessed my grandmother die a slow death at the hand of stomach cancer.
Once again, my mother stepped up as the intermediary between myself and death. In less than a year, my grandmother lost her abilities and my mother took over. She acted as her mother’s caretaker, exercising her power in a different way this time around. As my mom devoted her life force to the woman who birthed her, there was no time for her to guide me as she’d done before. With our graveyard lessons as a foundation, I alone had to reconcile that death could be found outside the cemetery. Death was no longer an idea, or part of someone else’s story.
Two months prior to her passing, when she still had her voice, my grandmother would repeatedly whisper my name. I was the only person she remembered. This thought ran a marathon through my mind the day she died. When I jolted awake that night, all I could think about was this and the candle wasp. After it stung me, I’m told that I sat down on my mom’s canvas messenger bag and quizzically touched the spot above my left eyebrow. I didn’t cry, not knowing that I had something to fear. The next thing I actually remember is my mom scooping me up in her arms and rushing me to the car. She drove me to my grandparents’ house, where I was deposited in my grandma’s arms. It was up to her to decide if I’d survive without medical attention.
Once she examined the stinger’s target and every other inch of my sunblock-covered body, my grandmother stated, “You’re lucky you’re strong.” She then rubbed some ointment on my forehead and insisted that my mom get back to work.
I was strong for handling what could have killed me, for grasping death culture without fear. But no amount of strength could have prepared me for the fact that death can and will touch those I love—no matter how much power they hold. Despite the endless gravestones that spring forth from the early timeline of my life, none would have made me comfortable with this lesson that could not be taught.
Following her passing, I found it fitting that my grandmother resides in one of the cemeteries I frequented as a child, though she is not buried there. She instead lies within a cremation niche, meaning that my mother need not put on her sunflower gloves and care for this matriarch’s section of the earth. When we do visit, we bring a bouquet of the flowers my grandma grew in her garden, and I feel a pang of nostalgia masked by a certain kind of understanding. Because now when I leave the graveyard, I’m aware that I’m leaving a part of myself behind. Those gates no longer separate me from the other side.