Sunday morning dawned clear and very cold. Winter has swept in in Thanksgiving’s wake. I took Grace and Whit to one of my favorite places, Mount Auburn Cemetery. My children love it there as well; I imagine they pick on the same sense of peace as I do. Plus, there is a great circular tower (reminding me vividly of a childhood book I read about a castle keep) that is fun to climb and that offers a terrific view of Boston from the top. There is a little trickling fairy stream, around which magic feels tangible.
Both Grace and Whit really like exploring the cemetery, and their senses seem on high alert there. They notice the details on the gravestones, the red berries aflame on one bush, the drifts of crunchy brown leaves at the base of another, and the play of the light on the trees. They have learned through my repeated exhortations to be quiet and respectful in such a sacred space.
It was cold on Sunday, and we did not last long. My fingers were cold from taking pictures, and because Whit wanted to hold my hand (and I did not have gloves). I’d let my fingers freeze before I denied him that. We were walking back to the car when I heard Grace sigh. “What’s up, G?” I asked the back of her head, following behind her on a narrow path. Whit was right behind me, gripping my icicle-fingers.
“Well, I love this place, Mummy. But it also makes me sort of sad.”
“You know, Gracie, I know what you mean. But for some reason I don’t find it creepy, even though it’s a cemetery.”
“Oh, I don’t mean creepy. Just sad. You know, that all of these people have died. And some children too.”
“Well,” I swallowed. “Sometimes being aware of death can make you really grateful for the life you have. Right?”
“Yes, you are right.” She turned to look at me, thoughtful.
As we drove out, we passed the chapel near the front gate. I mentioned that sometimes I liked to go sit in the chapel. “What do you do in there?” Whit asked, curious.
“Well, I like to sit and think. It’s quiet and peaceful. And to pray.”
“What does it mean, exactly, to pray, Mummy?” Whit pressed on, and I caught his eye in the rearview mirror. I remembered last year’s discussion of holiness, and had the same sensation of something animate in the car with me, bigger than me. I wanted to live up to this feeling. I hesitated. What does it mean, to pray?
“What do you think it means, Gracie?” I punted.
She didn’t miss a beat. “It means, Whitty, saying thank you to God for all the things you are thankful for having in your life.”
I fought a surge of feeling. Just this weekend I was thinking about how prayer should be about thank you, not about please give me. About how often we all seem to have it backwards. And without a shadow of a doubt, my eight year old expressed this more beautifully than I ever could have hoped to. I looked in the mirror and saw her smiling at him, saw him reach across the backseat to clutch her hand, his faded red-and-blue mitten curling around her bare fingers.