It seemed out of character for Margaret to assume such a carefree posture when it’s certain that there are loads of wash to be done and tubs of potato salad to be made. Actually, Margaret had just finished a chore that was just as important as any. They had been up there in the section of the cemetery where Margaret’s family have been buried for three generations. They’re Johnsons mostly, and Margaret is the only one left around to pay much attention to the looks of the graves. So, the two of them were up there making sure that plants were healthy and that the old dead flowers of Decoration Day were all cleaned up.
When they were about done, Margaret left her daughter to finish and began to walk toward the center of the cemetery, down where the G.A.R. Monument stands amid the graves of veterans of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. As she walked, she recalled a summer day much like this one when she was much younger, about ten, and she was taking her little brother, Timmy, for a tour of the place. Timmy was about seven then, just old enough to be a Cub Scout and able to march in the Memorial Day parade with all the other scouts that year.
Margaret’s mother had been having a terrible time with the two youngest children. “Why in heaven’s name did they have to get chicken pox at this time of the year. They fussed all last night. Margaret, take your brother and entertain him somewhere out of this house. I want some peace and quiet so those babies will sleep. Can you do that? There’s a good girl.”
And so Margaret, who was already getting good at mothering creatures younger and smaller than herself, did what came to her naturally. She made a picnic lunch for her younger brother and herself. For a ten-year-old, she did quite well. She made one baloney sandwich and one peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, both of which she cut into neat fourths and wrapped in waxed paper. Then she put in one orange and one apple. And to drink, she made a mayonnaise jar full of lime-flavored Cool Aid. To top off this sumptuous banquet she took two deviled eggs from the ice box which her mother had made for the Ladies’ Auxiliary meeting, and which her mother had told everyone in the family to leave alone until that very night after the meeting.
Margaret justified this theft by saying to herself that, after all, this was for a good cause, and it was the least her mother could do for children she was sending into exile, sort of like a condemned man’s last meal. So, with all this packed carefully in a paper bag, they set forth on their way to a grand picnic. We’ll go to the park, Margaret decided, and declared that, when they have played on the swing, they would eat, adding, if you are very good, I will tell you a story.
But she wasn’t quite ready for Timmy’s idea. He said to her, let’s not go to the park. Let’s go up the hill to the MON-U-MENT where the soldiers shot their guns. That would be better.
The cemetery, you mean, Margaret replied. Well, I suppose that would be O.K., but you are going to have to understand that a cemetery is not a place to play. That’s where a lot of dead people are buried, and you have to act nice and not do anything to be disrespectful. We even have relatives buried there, and we don’t want them to be ashamed of us or anything, she added.
So, the two children trudged to the top of the hill overlooking Cottonwood Corner, and there Margaret gave Timmy a lecture about the things you should and shouldn’t do when in a cemetery. You mustn’t play on the stones. Never whistle tunes-they aren’t sad enough for a cemetery. Be careful where you walk, you might step on somebody. And finally, Margaret said, most of all, you shouldn’t eat in a cemetery. Dead people can’t have food anymore, so it would be really impolite to eat in front of them.
So, because they couldn’t eat in front of all those dead people, Margaret took her favorite little brother out by the gates which reminded her of the pearly gates we all hope we’ll get through some day, and sitting on the concrete pedestals they ate their picnic lunch, saving for the last treat, two deviled eggs.
After that, Margaret introduced Timmy to the deceased members of the Johnson family by way of reading the inscriptions on the tombstones. Now you see, Timmy, that’s great grandfather Lars over there. He was a farmer. And there’s his sister, Nelly.
She even took her ward over to the G.A.R. Monument to see where an ancestor was buried who had served in the Civil War. That was when she looked down and saw her little brother doing just what she told him he shouldn’t. There he was enjoying the last bite of his deviled egg. After all she had told him!
Well, that was what Margaret was thinking about as she passed the G.A.R. Monument, and the graves of the Civil War Veterans, and the soldiers who died in World War I and World War II, and then those who died in Korea. And finally, she came to the to the newest section where soldiers who died in Vietnam were buried. She stood there for a long time-sort of like she was praying. And then, with her eyes stinging and a hurt in her throat, she said, After all I told you, Timmy! And she took out of her bag a small container which she opened and from which she took out one deviled egg which she placed next to a stone which read – SERGEANT TIMOTHY S. JOHNSON, FEB. 21, 1950 – JULY 14, 1968.
Margaret had stood in front of that grave for a long time when she became aware that she wasn’t alone. Anne was standing beside her, not knowing what to say or do. Finally, she asked her mother if she was all right-Do you need anything?
No, her mother said as she put an arm around her. I’m fine. Let’s go sit out there in front of the gate. I’ve brought us a little snack to share-your favorite-deviled eggs. Did I ever tell you that was your Uncle Timmy’s favorite too? No, you never knew your Uncle Timmy. Let’s sit over here and I’ll tell you about him.
And that’s what Margaret was doing last Friday sitting in front of the cemetery with her daughter Anne. And that’s just about all the time we have to sit here on the Liar’s Bench where the truth is stranger than fiction and fiction is strangely true.
Tom Miles, Liar’s Bench, July 1989