From the get-go I insisted that the tombstone had to say Grace. Not Lois or even Lois G – the way it appeared on the paper mock-up my parents first showed me—but Grace—spelled out so that all the people who knew me by that name, which is pretty much everyone I’ve met since I was eighteen, could find me if they ever come looking, though I knew that most of them never would. Unlike my family, who take cemetery maintenance seriously, showing up on a regular basis to plant flowers, pull weeds, place wreaths, or just dust off the slabs that bear their dearly departeds’ names, most of my friends whistle past graveyards, rarely stopping in to visit. But I wanted Grace on the tombstone anyway, just in case one of them ever did. So they could find me if they ever get the urge to drop off a bouquet, maybe toast me with a bottle of cheap champagne. I was okay with Lois being there too, since that was the name on my birth and baptismal certificates and passport, the name my parents bestowed on me at the start, but I wanted the name I’d grown into as well, and thought Lois Grace was the reasonable compromise. It’s what was on my driver’s license and monthly paycheck, on my credit cards and most of my bills, but my mom said that might be too many letters. It might not fit.
“What if my name was Theresa?” I asked. “Or Marianne? Or Theodosia?” I was invoking my maternal great grandmother with that last one—a name I knew had been suggested for me by my Nana, but rejected as too hard to pronounce, too “old country.” Still, they managed to get it spelled out on her tombstone. All nine letters.
I said the engraver might just need to use a smaller font. Then I had to explain what a font was. There had to be a way, I insisted, to get some version of my whole name on the tombstone, squeezing the entirety of “Lois Grace” in between “Sonny” and “Jeff.”
The mock-up showed that my parents had already decided to forego my older brother’s official “Joseph,” since almost no one ever called him that, and the “r-e-y” of my younger brother, for the more colloquial name we all commonly used. I didn’t want to be hogging space or more than my fair share of letters, and it did occur to me that I probably shouldn’t give a damn what the tombstone said. I’ll be dead, after all, so what will it matter to me what’s written on some rock positioned above the box that will contain whatever is left of my body after it’s burned? But somehow, this planning ahead made it matter. If you can’t have what you want on your own tombstone, what’s the point of having one?
Frankly, I’d never thought much about my grave. I don’t think many healthy people do. I’ve always liked cemeteries—had, in fact, played as a kid in the one we were now discussing—but I hadn’t considered being buried there, or anywhere, for that matter. Scattered ashes might be appropriate for someone who has moved around as much as I have—the only one in my immediate family who wandered geographically far away from this place I still referred to as home. But then my mom called one day and asked, as casually as if she were asking what I wanted for my birthday, if I planned on getting buried, and if so, where.
If we all agreed to get cremated, she said, our entire nuclear family would fit in the plot her parents had purchased before I was even born, the plot where we had buried my older brother’s ashes a few months before. He’d succumbed, at sixty-one, to lymphoma complicated by thirty years of heroin use that had rendered him too weak to fight the disease, or the infections that came after chemo, or the demons of addiction that rode his back right into the plot of ground where he was now laid to rest, as they say, hopefully resting in more peace than he ever found in this world. My parents were in the process of purchasing a permanent marker to replace the temporary cross that had been placed on his grave after the funeral. While they were at it, they were buying one for themselves, and so it occurred to them—and why the hell not—to include my kid brother and me in the deal, if we were agreeable to the arrangement. It seemed like an efficient plan. A sensible family affair.
They weren’t talking about anything fancy—just a modest upright granite square for themselves, and for us kids, a rectangle raised a few inches above the ground with a bold BAUER headline and then our given names, or nicknames or, in my case—if I had my way, a name I had sort of adopted—and the dates that marked our comings and eventual goings. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Three peas in a pod planted in Our Lady of Hungary cemetery, surrounded by related Bauers and Bilders and Wesloks and Feichtls and a vast field of other Catholics, though both my brothers and I had given up on that faith long ago.
I said yes, and in the next few weeks announced tofriends, “Hey, my mom and dad are buying me a tombstone.”
This elicited a combination of horror and maudlin humor, but I felt a vague sense of satisfaction in knowing where I’d eventually end up. Though I had no idea where I’ll be living when I die, I now had a final destination, somewhere they could send what they’ll call my remains. There would be one less decision for me—or some survivor—to make when the time came to make those decisions. One less thing to worry about. But now I was looking that proverbial gift horse in the mouth, insisting that Grace had to be on the tombstone.
“But,” my mom insisted, “Everyone here knows you as Lois.”
This, I pointed out, was not exactly true. To my family, I have always been (full and embarrassing disclosure here) Honey. Cousin Honey. Aunt Honey. Just plain Honey. I’d like to be able to claim the nickname indicated a sweet disposition that was evident the moment I exited my mother’s womb, but it had more to do with the word rhyming with my older brother, who’d been around for three years before I arrived and was firmly established as Sonny. Sonny and Honey. It was cute when we were kids, but for an adult woman, Honey Bauer sounds like a porn star pseudonym, so there was no way I wanted that on the tombstone. Not over my dead body.
“The relatives will know it’s me,” I said, “and no one else I knew from way-back-when is really going to care much.”
This was a fact. Most of the friends who will really mourn my passing were post high school, post hometown, scattered across the parts of the country where I’ve lived: Philadelphia, New Orleans, Montana, Massachusetts, Virginia, Nebraska. Though people from my childhood and teenage years would, I thought, remember me more fondly than not, I had long ceased to be part of their community, the circle of what they’d call real friends. They’d all been happy to see me when I showed up at our high school reunion for the first time in thirty years; recalled some amusing anecdotes from grade school and high school that included me. A few had introduced me to their spouses as “our class’s first hippy.” Some knew I was a writer. But while I enjoyed reconnecting with them on that occasion, I knew those connections were tenuous, based more on nostalgia for our shared histories than our present and on-going lives. A few might show up out of respect if a funeral service were held in town, but none of them were going to maintain my grave or festoon it with mums or vigil candles for All Souls’ Day, even if that ritual survives another generation. And besides, most of them had heard about the Grace thing by now, thanks to Facebook, Wikipedia, and more old- fashioned versions of gossip.
So Grace had to be part of the deal. I was firm on this. If I couldn’t have Grace on the tombstone, I really didn’t want it. I’d just arrange to have my ashes scattered to the winds or maybe donate my body to science. The more I thought about it, the stronger I felt. If there was going to be a marker to commemorate my life, a permanent record of my time on this earth, I wanted the record to be accurate—set straight—the story told as it had truly unfolded, whatever kind of character I’d ended up being, represented as—or at least called—what she was. Laid to rest with the name she had come to call hers. A name she didn’t exactly choose, any more than she had chosen the one her parents had given her at birth, but a name that had evolved, as she had, the one she’d grown accustomed to answering to.
Yes, I do realize that in the above paragraph, I have begun to talk about myself in the third person, something I’ve always found pretentious, or a little creepy, when other people do it. But how does one talk about one’s deceased self? Is “one” better or worse than “she?” Self as gone gets complicated. Who are you when you are no more, no longer living in the body you think of as yours? Or you? When others begin to speak of you in the permanently past tense?
One can get downright existential in these circumstances. Or, perhaps, she can. This me who will someday be no more in the flesh, no matter what she calls herself. Or what other people call her. This Grace or Lois or Honey who will live on only in a few people’s memories, and perhaps—a bit of ego here—a few of her poems that may survive.
It occurs to me that this vague, and probably futile, hope may be part of why I’m insisting on Grace. Because Grace is the name I publish under. The name I live—with? in? behind?—as a writer.The name I am known by, poetically speaking, though I’m fully, and sometimes painfully, aware of the fact that I’m a far cry from being “known” as a poet—well or otherwise. I’ve labored in relative obscurity in life, so am I really going to entertain the fantasy that years after I’m gone some devoted reader is going to seek out my final resting place, stand above my simple “Grace” the way readers have stood above Dickinson’s “Called Back,” Yeats’s “Horseman, pass by,” Keats’s “Name Writ in Water,” and the like? I mean—really! This is clearly delusional.
And yet, what harm in such a delusion? Am I hurting anyone or anything by allowing for this possibility? Isn’t the desire for a bit of immortality at least one of the driving forces behind all creative efforts—not to mention, tombstones? Would I be the first obscure artist or writer rediscovered long after they were gone? Might insisting on Grace be doing some future reader—perhaps an earnest graduate student—a favor, making it easier for them to track down the final resting place of this forgotten poet they stumbled upon in some library’s stacks, blowing dust off a book that had not been checked out in years to discover a poem that moved or delighted them and taking it upon themselves to find out more about the woman who’d written it?
Or maybe they spot a slim volume in a used bookstore (if such establishments survive longer than I do). The image on the cover catches their eye (I have been blessed with some damn good covers), though the writer’s name doesn’t ring even the faintest bell. A quick Google or Bing (or whatever engine might take over searches in this fantasy future) yields several possible me’s—an actress, an interior decorator turned chef and cook book author, an advocate for incarcerated children, a champion swimmer and—oh, yes, a poet—all coexisting on the planet at the same time, engaged in their varied pursuits, living their not famous but hopefully fulfilling lives with whatever measure of grace being named Grace allowed them.
My own transformation into Grace happened more or less as a joke. It began when a girl who lived down the hall from me in the dorms my freshman year in college—a black woman whose name I do not now remember and who may never have known my “real” one—started calling me Grace Slick after hearing me sing along to the albums that were often blaring in my room. Feed your head was a refrain I especially liked belting out—mostly to shock my conservative roommate. Other girls took to calling me Slick too, and when, half-way through the semester, I managed to severely sprain my ankle in a freak accident while merely dancing in my room (and slipping on a slick spot on the floor, ha ha)—grace took on an ironic twist and stuck.
This was a time when many in the counter-culture I aimed to be part of were renaming themselves right and left—mostly left. Hippy chicks transformed from Cindys and Barbaras and Karens into Lunas and Sages and Skys. Feminists rejected their patriarchal surnames in favor of their mother’s maiden names or neologisms like Womynfire. Given time, I might very well have come up with something in that order, but fate—or dumb luck—beat me to it. Grace I became, as I hobbled, oh, so gracelessly, across campus on my crutches. And Grace I have been ever since—though I still answer to Honey, and the occasional Lois, as the situation demands. In print, though, it’s always been Grace, except for some embarrassing high school stuff I hope no one— not even that fantasy grad student of the future—ever digs up. Many people who know me these days, both personally and professionally, have never even heard of Lois.
Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but it would confuse the hell out of gardeners if we suddenly started calling roses petunias or dandelions. I have lived with three different names in eight different states. I’ve worked a variety of jobs, been labeled as a sale’s girl, telephone solicitor, waitress, office clerk, barmaid, librarian, and, finally, professor. The academic world is light years away from the steel and cement and clothing mill culture in which I grew up, but I still feel conscious of myself as, fundamentally, the same person who grew up there—not like a series of fluid selves, as post-modern theory suggests, but more like the same self who has taken on different roles—like an actor playing whatever parts the situations I have found myself in have called for, but always vaguely aware of the fact that I am playing. Underneath it all, on some very basic level, I have a sense of a stable something—call it self or soul, personality or spirit, whatever—that is just an older, evolving version of that kid from the Lehigh Valley, still shaped, and possibly warped, by the forces of my so-called formative years—which I suspect are still occurring. If that is a delusion of ego, as Buddhists believe, it’s a delusion I’ve yet to escape. And I don’t think I’d want to. Whatever this entity I call me is feels like something I inhabit. Maybe I’ll call it my own state of grace.
And speaking of Grace—that’s the name now chiseled on the tombstone. No tiny font. No Lois at all. Just five letters to identify what will, on some future day, become my former existence. My past life.
At some point, my parents decided to give me the name I wanted. The letters fit quite nicely between the names of my brothers, who will bookmark me in death as they did in life—Sonny three years older; Jeff eight years younger. Me, the middle child. The only girl. All that future history summed up in a few words and numbers now written in stone. Though I personally would not have chosen the two little crosses that flank the upper corners, they’re a decoration I think I can live with after I’m dead.
Sonny already lies in the ground—buried in a box so small it was hard to believe, as I dropped my single carnation into the hole in which it rested, that it contained what had once been my big brother. The body of a living, breathing man. To the left of him, my maternal grandparents and a great aunt and uncle; a little farther back, my parents’ plot. We’re within spitting distance of other relatives—either here in what locals call the “Hunky” cemetery or across the way in the “Ukie” section—surrounded by dearly departed relatives, friends, and neighbors who will all someday be neighbors, of a different sort, again.
No predicting how long it will be before I join them. I mean, it’s not like I’m in any hurry! I may have a pre-arranged grave, but I’m hoping to stay out of it for as long as possible, to keep working and playing and paying taxes till that other unavoidable comes along and renders me eternally exempt.
When it comes to eternity, I’m not sure what I think about that long haul of time. I’ve given up belief in a literal heaven and hell, though I still harbor vague notions of some kind of on-going-ness that might be called an after-life. What form that might take? I haven’t a clue.
As a child I accepted every word I was taught about gold-lined streets above the clouds awaiting the righteous faithful, and fire and brimstone below us ready to consume all sinners. When the nuns at Our Lady described The Last Judgment, as they often did with great flare and what strikes me now as rather ghoulish anticipation, I always pictured it happening in this very cemetery, the only place I knew for the dead to go. God would be perched on his throne right here on the corner of 2nd and Main, surrounded by choirs of white-robed angels, with stairways to heaven and hell to his right and left. Actually, I imagined them more like escalators—and I, of course, would be gliding effortlessly skyward while any enemies that may have tormented me at school or on the playground (this might include a few of those nuns) would be futilely trying to back-pedal away from the flames they so clearly had earned. I saw it all in Technicolor clarity. A hallelujah cartoon.
These days I tend to see most judgments as less black and white/ all or nothing, and the hereafter as the ultimate que sera. Whatever’s in store after my earthly remains are stored, I’ll find out sooner or later. I’ll understand—or at very least experience it—all by and by, as the old hymn proclaims. Or maybe there will be one big nada.
Some might see a tombstone as a rather macabre gift, but it’s one I know I will, someday, have a use for—and when the time comes, I know it will fit just fine, even if what it fits is no longer really me—just the ash and bone that was once the part of me called body. I have visited my future final place of rest several times now—placed a stone of remembrance on my brother’s name, deadheaded the geraniums my mom plants on all the family graves each Spring, pulled a few weeds, done a little dance—for the hell of it. I’m not sure how I’ll get there when the time comes. I don’t think I can count on a gentleman in a carriage—ala Emily D—to kindly stop and drive me past the setting sun, so I suppose I’ll have to make more practical arrangements, remind the executor of my will that this little square of real estate exists, maybe pre-purchase a box to match my brother’s and set aside some money for shipping and handling—no return to sender allowed. All in good time, as they say. All by and by. The stone awaits—my birthdate already recorded, room for the date of my death a blank waiting to be filled, the dash between representing whatever time constitutes the rest of my life. At this point my future is, no doubt, shorter than my past, but it is my future. I am alive for another day. With things to do this side of the grave.