by Carrie Sessarego
Tucked in the folds of the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, near the entrance to Sequoia National Park, there’s a tiny town called Three Rivers, California. My family always went to Three Rivers in the spring or summer, so in my memory it’s always a place of pale green grass rapidly drying to gold and wildflowers everywhere. For generations, Burnhams and Wells and Hardins and McGowans had married each other, giving rise to a far-travelling family that was anchored by the tiny cemetery in the tiny town.
Our family reunions were held on a piece of property named, without irony, “The Property.” People circled their RVs and tents in a meadow bordered by soft woods. Every night we had a campfire and sang songs like “Charlie and the M.T.A.” and “Shine on, Harvest Moon.” At least once per reunion, we visited our kin at the Three Rivers Cemetery, which was founded in 1909. Parts of the cemetery are watered and mowed, but the older areas are wild. As a child, I saw the cemetery as an extension of The Property. That made it my territory; a place where I could run and play on the mowed lawns and the weedy edges of the cemetery, while the grown-ups did whatever it is that grown-ups do.
The first funeral I remember going to was that of my aunt (technically, my grandaunt-in-law), who gloried in the name Ruth Vernealia Pell Wells. Ruth and her husband, Blick Wells, had a motorhome and travelled all over the country. One Christmas they parked in my grandparents’ driveway for the holidays. My only memory of Ruth is from that year, when Ruth invited me in and taught me how to make an Ojo de Dios Christmas ornament. Soon after, she died of cancer and was cremated. As per her request, her ashes were buried at Three Rivers Cemetery in a Taster’s Choice coffee can, tied with an orange strip of fabric. (It was her favorite color.) Afterwards we all went back to The Property and had another bonfire and sang late into the night.
It’s hard to be reverent in the face of death once you’ve watched your grandaunt be buried in a coffee can. I never felt afraid at Three Rivers Cemetery. How could I? Any ghosts were ghosts of my relatives. The worst they might do to me was tease me about that time when I was ten that I sat on an ant’s nest during a reunion. There’s my great-grandpa, who showed me where the harebells grew on The Property. There’s Aunt Linnie (technically, Great-aunt Linnie) who survived a terrible car crash as a teenager and, as a result of her burns, only had one fingernail. There’s Fred and Blanche Burnham, who lived in Rhodesia and taught Lord Baden-Powell how to be a scout before heading off to the Klondike Gold Rush. There’s Mark, the teenager who died in the same car crash that claimed Linnie’s fingernails, and poor little Baby Hardin, born and died in 1923.
The last time I went to Three Rivers Cemetery, it was to bury the ashes of my granduncle, Blick Wells. Blick, a rambling man who had a girlfriend outside of Anchorage, took me under his wing when I moved to Alaska. He showed me affection and acceptance and gave great advice. “My dear,” he said, “never let your feet get cold.”
When it came time to bury him, my husband and I drove four hours from Sacramento for the funeral. We had just gotten a dog. We brought him with us and tied him under an oak during the service. My three-year-old daughter ran around the cemetery just as I had once. The grasses around the cemetery were dry and golden in the California heat. No one’s feet could possibly get cold under that California sun. My husband helped Blick’s son (called, inevitably, ‘Blicky’ by the family) cover the ashes with dirt.
Since then, The Property has been sold and the latest relatives to pass on have been buried elsewhere. The Sacramento relatives are generally buried at East Lawn Memorial Park in Sacramento. It’s a pretty place, and it’s convenient to the mourners, but it’s much too manicured for me. My tentative plan is to donate my body to science and have any leftover ashes lowered into the Three Rivers Cemetery ground in an Equal Exchange Hot Cocoa can. I’m hoping that someone will bring a dog, someone will bring a small child who will run around the oak trees, and someone will remember all the verses to “Charlie and the M.T.A.” The mountains that edge Three Rivers will stand guard and harelips will bloom on their hillsides. That’s not scary. That’s family.
Carrie Sessarego is the resident ‘geek reviewer’ for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where she wrangles science fiction, fantasy romance, comics, movies, and nonfiction. Carrie’s first book, Pride, Prejudice, and Popcorn: TV and Film Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, was released in 2014. Her work has been published in SEARCH Magazine, Interfictions Online, After the Avengers, The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 9, Google Play Editorial, Invisible 3, and Speculative Fiction 2013: The Year’s Best Online Reviews, Essays, And Commentary. When not reading and writing, you can find Carrie speaking at conventions, volunteering for the Sacramento Public Library, and getting into trouble with her mad scientist husband, Potterhead daughter, mysterious cats, and neurotic dog.
About the Death’s Garden project:
I am jump-starting the Death’s Garden project again. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.