The Day

Saturday morning, 9:00 a.m.  I got a late start, had some morning errands to run.  But those are done.  And now I’m on my way.

Let’s Go, Cardachrome – next stop, Saugus, Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Turnpike is quiet.  Only a few cars on the highway, mostly drivers who probably, like me, got a late start for their weekend journeys.  A grey-blue Ford Crown Victoria zips past me.  Lights start flashing.  Johnny Badge caught someone.  Thankfully, setting my cruise control at a brisk 65 MPH means the commonwealth mounties won’t pull me over for speeding, like they did to that rust-bucket Buick they just caught.

I think about this journey along the Pike.  I remember taking it the week after school ended – every year, my Grandma Betty would come from Boston, pick me up, and drive me back to her place for the summer.  I would return to the 518 when school started again.

I always associated those summers as the calming moments in my hurricane life.  Even today, whether it’s using the Pike to go to Springfield or to Worcester or to anywhere else in New England, I’m always reminded of these road trips with my grandmother.  She’d let me hold the toll ticket all the way from the Berkshire Spur to Route 128, and if I didn’t bend, fold, spindle or mutilate it, I could get a Hoodsie ice cream cup when we reached West Roxbury.  Forget Klondike bars.  You would do anything to get a Hoodsie and you know it.

I need to hold on to good memories like this.  My few good memories are getting powerslammed by the bad memories.

Still driving.  I’ve just passed Springfield.  There’s lots of memories here as well.  People I know.  People I used to know.  People that were friends.  People that are no longer in my life.  I keep driving.  If I stop, I might chicken out and turn back for home, and this journey won’t reach its conclusion.

How many times in my life did my grandmother rescue me from horrible situations?  More times than I can even imagine.  It was as if she knew that I couldn’t survive the abuse and the torment and the hurt and the hate, and if I could have three months a year away from all that pain, things would be better for me.

Back to the summer trips.  The day after we arrived in Boston, she would take me to Lechmere – for some unknown reason, I always pronounced it “Latch-mere” as opposed to “Leach-mere” – and she’d buy me shirts and pants.  She knew that I was arriving with whatever clothes my parents could cram in a grocery bag, and obviously that wasn’t enough clothing to last an entire summer.  In fact, I suspect she knew that whatever I brought was most likely what I had received from her last summer.

If I behaved all week, she’d take me to the New England Aquarium or to the Museum of Science or to the Children’s Museum or to a number of other fun places.  We’d drive to Cleveland Circle in Brookline, take the Mass Transit – what I always knew as the , but she would call it something like the Toonerville Trolley or just the Trolley – we’d take the Green Line from Cleveland Circle to Science Park, or transfer to the Blue Line for the Aquarium.  These were fun moments for me.

Ah, we’re passing Exit 8 now.  Brimfield.  The world’s largest flea market.  Three times a year.  And I remember my grandmother taking me on her flea market and auction trips.  She explained to me that if someone’s selling an item at a flea market for $1, you can talk it down to 75 cents or 50 cents.  I guess I learned that message too well, when she actually saw me try to buy a toy for five cents, and talk the seller down to two cents.

Still driving down the Pike.  There’s the exit for Route 128.  Well, it’s now the exit for I-95, but Route 128 runs concomitantly.  I keep driving.  All the way through Boston.  There’s the TD Garden.  There’s the Zakin Bridge.  There’s Fenway Park.  I still recall the first baseball game I ever watched, it was Boston hosting Baltimore in a twi-night doubleheader in 1975.  I got stuck behind an iron girder for both games, didn’t see a single pitch or hit (thanks to the vision-blocking girder), and all I remember at the time was some kid three rows behind me, shouting, “Two, Four, Six, Nine, You look like Frankenstein!” to every Baltimore batter.  Yeah, I’m sure THAT affected Brooks Robinson’s career.  Must keep driving.

I’ve now reached Saugus.  As far as I can imagine, Saugus exists as the entire stretch of US 1.  Imagine Wolf Road as its own self-enclosed municipality.  And there’s the Hilltop Steakhouse.  You can’t miss the Hilltop Steak House – where else are you going to see a 50-foot cactus in the middle of Massachusetts?

Hilltop Steak House sign, Saugus, Mass. Photo by Chuck Miller.

I stop in.  A steak dinner will calm my nerves a bit.  And I gotta tell you, the Hilltop Steak House steaks are quite juicy and meaty.  I need to have something in my stomach, and after 3 1/2 hours on the road, I gotta sit down.  These long road trips – Boston, Halifax, Rochester, New York City – they’re taking a lot out of me.  Physically.  Emotionally.  Mentally.  How truck drivers can go from New York to California their entire life without developing white line fever, I’ll never know.  But as I dug into that prime rib – medium well, with a side of red bliss mashed potatoes and some warm dinner rolls – all I could think about was making sure that stone was properly engraved.

As I reach the access road, I can only imagine what everyone else is doing right now.  Coloring Easter eggs or placing them in a meadow for kids to find.  Purchasing chocolate bunnies or marshmallow chicks.  Enjoying grape-flavored matzah and trying to find the afikomen.  How is this night different than other nights?  I’ll know in a few moments.

There’s the cemetery.  Right on the border of Saugus and Melrose.  I turn off the car radio.  It’s a habit with me, whether I’m visiting Hadrath Israel Cemetery or St. Agnes or Oakwood or any burial grounds.  No car radios.  It’s déclassé.  You’re here to pay respect, not to listen to Bruno Mars.

Two years ago, I captured this picture at the cemetery.  It showed my grandmother’s gravestone as being unfinished, without a date of death.  Last Monday, I was informed by the stone-cutting company I hired, Slotnick Canter, that the monument’s date of death was finally engraved on the stone.  They promised to send me a picture of the completed stone.  They never did.

I should have expected that.  Story of my life.

This is supposed to be an important moment.  It should never have come to this.

I look past the gardens of granite.

There it is. In the distance. Photo by Chuck Miller.

There it is.  In the distance.  The family plot.  My grandmother and grandfather are buried here, along with what would have been an Aunt Diane (1943-1944) and some other relatives whose names completely escape me for the moment.

I look for the stone.

And I find it.

The date is engraved.  Slotnick Canter did their job.  However, whoever did the sandblasting dumped a crateload of dirt on her grave, all over the grass.  And in doing so, they dumped dirt and rocks and mud all over Grandma Betty’s tombstone – and Grandpa Ben’s tombstone next to it.  I use my bare hands to wipe away as much dirt as I possibly can.

I then place the stone, which came all the way from McLarens Beach in New Brunswick, on Grandma Betty’s grave marker.  And I take a picture.

Photo by Chuck Miller.

I pull a piece of paper out of my back pocket.  It’s a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish.  I have my choice of reading the prayer in Hebrew or in English; and whoever created this bilingual printout was kind enough to print the phonetic Hebrew translation.  I don’t want to screw this up.  I recite the Mourner’s Kaddish in English.  I think both God and Grandma Betty will completely understand.

May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he- above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.

The date is correct.  The promise is kept.

I whisper a few more words, about how I miss her every day and that I’ve always appreciated everything she ever did for me, no matter how big or how small.

And I say goodbye.

As I get back in my car and start the engine, a thousand emotions are ripping through my body.  I should feel relief.  I should feel joy.  And all I feel is hurt and loneliness and silence and solitude and tears.

I drive back along Route 1, back over the Tobin Bridge.  In a short while, I’ll be on the Massachusetts Turnpike, heading home.

Oh look, on my right is the Bunker Hill monument.  And there’s the Zakin Bridge.  And over there is the Museum of Science –

I don’t know how long it took for me to make the decision.  Probably 15 seconds at the most.  But instead of scooting through Boston’s subterranean highways back to the Mass Pike and to home… I needed a good memory, something that reminded me of the fun times we had together.

I checked my watch.  2:00 p.m.  I’ve got three hours to spare.

Before I knew it, I had Cardachrome parked and was on my way, Nikon D700 in hand, to the Museum of Science.

Boston's Museum of Science. Photo by Chuck Miller.

I walked through the corridors of this venerable learning institution, and even though it was the year 2012, it was like walking through a time machine – all the way back to 1972, 1975, 1978.  All the times that Grandma Betty would take me here, she would find a spot and sit and knit and knit, while I went through the museum’s three floors of exhibits and dioramas and artifacts.  All the afternoons I sat in the Charles Hayden Planetarium and watched the heavenly displays – the stars in the New England skies, all projected on the Planetarium’s dome-shaped roof.  Apparently the original projector is no longer in the Planetarium – a worker told me it got shipped to a museum in Colorado, theirs broke down and you can’t get parts for a 40-year-old planetarium projector any more, so Boston replaced theirs with a Carl Zeiss Starmaster ZMP.

I went through the museum, looking for all the exhibits I remembered – or at least the ones that were iconic displays.  There was the Transparent Woman, still on display in a second floor gallery; her organs and tissues all representing the study of anatomy and biology.  Oh look, there’s the SkyLab module – arguably our first “international space station,” except for the fact that it was built in 1974 – back in the pre-Space Shuttle days… nobody remembers SkyLab.  I do, though…

And then, as I walked along the second floor of the Museum, I saw a notice that one could visit the museum’s butterfly garden.  And sure enough, I spent the better part of an hour watching and photographing and smiling at beautiful butterflies.

Butterfly. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Oh my Lord, there were so many different, beautiful butterflies in that enclosed area.  They would fly from leaf to branch, from window to landing.  Their wings would open and close – softly, slowly – and then fly away, as if to only give us a tiny glimpse of their elegance.

A little girl – couldn’t have been more than six years old – stared intently at a little red-winged butterfly.  Her mother was trying to take the girl’s picture, but couldn’t get close enough for a good shot.

“I’ll take it for you,” I said.  “It’s no trouble at all for me.”

One iPhone shot later, and 10 years from now I bet that girl will still have a picture of her and a butterfly posted on her bedroom wall.

“Could you take our picture?” a guy asked me, handing me his Canon.

“Glad to,” I replied. He and his girlfriend smiled. I focused.  A butterfly fluttered in the distance behind them, its blue wings glistening in the picture.

Eventually, after all the other patrons left the butterfly garden, I asked one of the Museum volunteers if she would take a picture of me with one of the butterflies.  “As long as you don’t touch them,” the worker said, “sure.  Hand me your camera.”

It didn’t even dawn on me that I did something that was totally un-Chuck-like.  I handed my Nikon D700 over to a complete stranger so she could take my picture… and I didn’t even flinch in doing so.

In case you're wondering... I'm the one on the right. Photo by Chuck Miller, with the help of a volunteer from the Museum of Science, Boston, Mass.

Five o’clock is fast approaching.  The museum will shut down soon.  I quickly make my way to the gift store and purchase a few presents for my friends.  And then it’s back in the car and homeward bound.

And on the way home, I just felt like a major weight had been removed from my back.  I didn’t have to feel like I had to be the only person responsible for making things right.  Sure, I can do the best I possibly can under any situation, and I did get the grave updated and corrected.

But I also found a way to keep my memories happy – not to think of my grandmother as permanently residing in an old graveyard on the town line between Saugus and Melrose – but to think of her as someone who did whatever it took to keep me safe and happy.

And if I live to be a hundred years old – I’ll never be able to thank her enough for what she did.

I went to Boston Saturday to right a wrong.  And I left feeling like something I felt was wrong inside me – turned out all right after all.