Pela gets sentimental over an old cemetery

You live in a town long enough, and every corner contains a memory of someone you used to know. I've been here almost half a century, and I can barely walk across the street without being reminded of one person or another. I drive past that cheesy diner at 16th Street and Camelback and I'm reminded of eating pie with the Love Nurse, an RN and part-time autograph dealer I used to hang out with in the '80s. That creepy morgue of a shopping mall at 43rd Avenue and Olive reminds me of Missy Eycleshymer, because in the '70s we used to go there for munchies after we smoked pot.

But I had to drive half an hour west of town, way the hell out to the 15000 block of West Camelback, to see something that reminded me of Ilona, a woman to whom I was once related by marriage. I'd assumed she was still out there somewhere, getting loaded and being manipulative and breathtakingly beautiful. But it turns out she died about a decade ago, still addicted to the drugs that ruined her marriage to my brother; she was declared an indigent and buried at White Tanks Cemetery, a desolate patch of dusty land where Sheriff Joe Arpaio's chain gangs bury more than 300 bodies a year. Since 1994, the cemetery has received more than 3,000 bodies, many of them babies.

The flowers I brought with me were the only ones in evidence in this bleak, gravel-strewn lot surrounded by chain-link. Inside, rows of brass discs mark the graves of people with no family to bury them, those too broke to pay for funerals, and folks who went unclaimed at the time of their death, their markers etched with the names "Jane Doe" and "John Doe." I'd always thought of a "paupers graveyard" in Dickensian terms; I suppose I expected to see little old ladies tending spare, neat rows of simple graves marked with slender, bone-white gravestones. White Tanks is certainly neat and spare. It's also really noisy. Every five minutes or so, squadrons of jets from Luke Air Force Base fly loudly overhead. But there are no little old ladies; the volunteers here are youngish women in black-and-white-striped prison uniforms, chained together at the waist as they preside over the burials of strangers.


White Tanks Cemetery

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And, okay, so cemeteries are supposed to be depressing. But I've been to other local graveyards, and there's a certain sad beauty to the dying flowers left on graves, a sense of history in the apparent randomness with which some of the plots are placed. I like how, even in those cemeteries that are set up in rambling configurations rather than in neat, uniform rows, there's always a sense of design; a separation of big, gaudy family plots, marked with monuments and tended by paid gardeners, from simpler, less ambitious monuments to the dead. It's a sense of design that offers a peculiar acknowledgement that, even in death, there are people we don't want to spend any time near.

But not at White Tanks, which is so nondescript that I mistook it at first for a parking lot. I was expecting, I guess, a place something like the Jewish cemeteries I've visited, where flowers are verboten (instead, visitors place rocks on top of headstones as a sort of Hebrew "Kilroy was here" that marks their visit) and there's always a regimental symmetry to the layout, which is, by the way, always boy-girl, boy-girl. But at White Tanks, I saw no indication that anyone had visited any grave, ever; no one had left a rock on or near one of the markers, which, the more I stared at them, looked more like drinks coasters than gravestones.

I never did find Ilona's grave; I admit I gave up pretty quickly. It was high noon and hot as hell, and the place was depressing. I drove to my parents' house and gave the flowers to my mother, who used to sometimes babysit Ilona after she got out of rehab, back when she was still married to one of my brothers. The truth is, I rarely thought of Ilona much anymore, but a few months ago, I received an e-mail from a nice fellow in Tucson named Chris, who told me he was her son, born before she met my brother and given up for adoption at birth. He wanted to know what his birth mother had been like and I, with perhaps a bit too much candor, told him during a marathon telephone conversation a week or so later.

Chris e-mailed me a few weeks after that to tell me he'd found Ilona's gravesite; she's in Row 4, Lot 3, Grave 23. I've agreed to go with him to visit his birth mother's grave, and in the meantime I'm going to search my memory for some other, more contented locale that reminds me of Ilona. The SuperX where she used to buy Quaaludes is gone; so is the revival house where she took me to see The Boys in the Band when I was far too young to be watching a movie about a bunch of decadent homos. But somewhere in this town, there's a patch of real estate with a happy story about my sad former sister-in-law, and I'm going to find it.


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