My Father’s Grave

by Tim Gilmore, 9/22/2019

I never expected my father to move back to the city, but he was contrarian enough that he’d be dead before he did. So here he is.

Most people looking toward the evenings of their lives downsize. If they can, they sell stuff and travel more. New Englanders move to Florida condos. My father did the opposite. After he retired from his railroad career with CSX, he bought a few acres 40 minutes west of town where he planted the biggest garden he’d worked since his childhood on a Central Georgia farm. He never made much money, but having grown up in the Great Depression, he never spent a dime he didn’t have to lose. So in the mid-’90s he paid cash to have a three-bedroom two-bathroom house built from his savings.

my father, circa 1950, Columbus, Georgia

When my father was 85 years old, he found out he might lose his greenbelt property tax exemption, which meant a tax increase of not quite $1700 a year. The rules for the percentage of your land used agriculturally in order to receive the exemption had changed years before and they’d finally caught up to him.

my father’s siblings James, Anne and Jeanette, and their mother, children’s identities uncertain, Oglethorpe, Georgia, circa 1940

There was no way he was going to let the government get that money. (This fundamental Baptist Southerner hated Southern presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both liberal moderates, and having voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, he would never vote Democratic again. He disliked Northerners on a personal level, especially New Yorkers, but said he liked Trump, despite Trump’s shockingly sexist comments and affairs with porn stars and bragging about assaulting women and other seemingly Un-Jesus-like behavior, and he loved FDR, the most leftist president in the nation’s history, like a childhood uncle. “FDR was always good to us poor folks,” he told me. “He did a lot of things to help out the farmers.”) So my dad got goats.

my father, age 11, and his brother James, age 15, four years before James’s diagnosis of schizophrenia and institutionalization, 1935

He spent several thousand dollars to buy the goats, build sheds and other small outbuildings, fence a large portion of his property, and keep his rock-eyed ungulates fed and current on whatever meds goats apparently need. He grew most fond of a goat he called Tinkerbell, who followed him around like a dog. I hadn’t known goats needed their hooves trimmed regularly until he asked me to help him do it. I held the goats down, while they screamed like colicky babies, and my dad clipped their hooves with shears designed just for that purpose. I’ll never forget the sight of my father, 90 years old, wearing a straw hat and long-sleeved flannel shirt in June, looking like a Flannery O’Connor character, running after a particularly slippery goat and turning a lasso over his head. Capturing that one goat took about an hour and appeared to take place in slow motion. My father spent about three times more on purchasing goats and their accoutrements than he’d have had to pay if he’d lost his tax exemption.

This place my father ordained for the keeping of his mortal remains is neither restful, nor peaceful. And Riverside Memorial Park is neither a park, nor in Riverside. My father’s grave lies at the corner of Normandy Boulevard and Memorial Park Road. The Memorial Park Movement began with businessman Hubert Eaton who decided cemeteries needed new branding, so he bought Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California in 1917 and changed the name to Forest Lawn Memorial Park, birthing a whole new industry of euphemism. No river runs beside Riverside Memorial Park. Nor should the cemetery be confused with Memorial Park, an actual park and a beautiful one, in Riverside, the neighborhood where my mother grew up and where I now live.

The intersection beside my father’s grave roars and rattles and bumps and screeches and thunders. Beside my father’s temporary marker, a car radio blasts a pop singer namedropping girlfriends, “A little bit of Monica,” then Erica and Jessica and the rest of his supposed harem. Enormous pickup trucks with “Yeah, it’s got a Hemi” bumper stickers rattle the dead in the earth. A street preacher with a dozen cardboard signs bearing an incoherent misspelt gospel shouts through a bullhorn that alternates as an ambulance siren. A woman hangs her head from her driver’s seat window to scream at the chihuahua barking from the open car window behind her, but I admire the live oak that seems to bloom from some defunct brick fountain before it.

Three decades ago my dad moved to Baker County, saying he did so “to get out of the rat race.” I mentioned this irony of his “final resting place” to a funeral home employee, who said, “Well, he probably got these plots dirt cheap.” My father’s grave represents the last penny pinching of his Great Depression frugality.

Walking back through the cemetery, away from Normandy Boulevard, just far away from Memorial Park Road that I can’t see its asphalt, I come face-to-face with giant yellow letters announcing the all-you-can-eat buffet of Golden Corral. From here, the chain restaurant rises over the dearly departed and appears to be situated in the midst of the cemetery. If you’re over 60, you can buy the Senior Early Bird Special, starting at four p.m. For only $7.49, you “Get the Whole Buffet!” My father’s over 60 and half 60 again, but I doubt he could eat that much. Especially now. And yes, he would have liked that joke.