I don't visit my parents' graves much because honestly, it's a little like looking at their clothes on a hanger. Well actually, not even that specific. My parent's clothes were very specific and their current surroundings, well... not so much.
That said, I found myself inexplicably and apropos of nothing (or maybe it was the six condolence notes I wrote this week) heading east on the 134 in the middle of a weekday afternoon -- a list of nagging errands on the passenger seat and a load of client stuff in the trunk -- toward Forest Lawn. As I barreled down the surprisingly empty freeway, I wondered if I would be able to locate their sites. I mean, years have passed and I regularly get lost in parking structures so this concern is fairly valid.
I pass thru the massive wrought iron gates (and when I say massive, they are the largest wrought iron gates in the world), somehow autopilot kicks in and I start wending my way through the 290 Disneyland-esque acres. The deliciously whimsical castle-like main structure has always tickled my architectural fancy and I usually like to park and poke around, but I spot some visitors who's mood looks to be a little more somber than mine, so I tool on up the hill.
Past the Grand Mausoleum (Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, et al), past Aimee Semple McPherson's stately tomb, around the bend where the Doheny monument sits and finally to the tiptop of the cemetery's property where the views of Los Angeles are completely uninterrupted.
Before I continue this narrative, I have to say what I love about this place is the absolute perfection of it all. The grass is never brown. The bronze headstones gently aged but not askew, cracked or missing. Local wildlife scurry about as if it were Snow White's backyard. Even the outdoor speakers oozing soft chamber music seem to say, "Hey, come stay a while. Forever, in fact!" (Although, one of the rules listed on the website states "No Loitering," making me wonder where the delineation between "visiting," "loitering," and "moving in" would be.)
Anyway, magically -- once again -- I have found the Secret Gated Garden. The one that came with a very ornate key my mother kept in the safe deposit box after their plots were purchased in 1956. This key was treated with such reverence, I assumed should it be lost I would be forever banished from again entering the "world's tallest gates." However, eventually I discovered there was no lock in sight, so the key found its way to the back corner of a desk drawer accompanied by fuzz balls and my dead cat's collar.
Until 1955 when the real Disneyland opened, Forest Lawn was L.A.'s No. 1 tourist attraction. Really. And as such, we would always bring our visiting out-of-town friends and relatives to take in the soaring vistas, famous headstones and live presentation of "The Last Supper" faithfully recreated down to the key dialogue.
So, on a particularly sunny July afternoon in 1969, we were once again entertaining visitors and headed up to Glendale. My father, ever the prankster, asked his friend, "Frank, do you have your camera handy?" Frank as instructed, fumbled around with the dangling Kodak Instamatic around his neck. "Well, get this!" And Dad promptly lay down on top of his freshly paid-in-full piece of real estate, cameras clicking. My mother rolling her eyes exclaimed, "Oh Clay! Get up!" Our friends nervously chuckled and I -- at 11 -- was trying to balance my giggling fits with my mother's admonitions. Ah... my irreverent father. Such a card.
With this little nugget from 40 years ago dancing before my eyes, my uncontrollable grin starts. At the garden's entrance.
Regardless of the frequency, my visits come with a little ritual. I walk counter-clockwise around the perimeter and pay homage to Mr. Disney, Errol Flynn, Ida Lupino and Spencer Tracy who are all within a stone's throw remembered by elegantly quiet markers of different design. I notice that at Spencer Tracy's name someone had placed a hand-painted stone with a goofy but charming face making me smile. "Sweet," I thought. As I approached my parents' front-row-center locale, I noticed an imperfection in the landscape. A hint of un-natural blue tucked in the vivid green grass. And there at my father's marker was another smiling face.
Tears welled up and I thought what a wonderful thing it was that he continued to touch someone's life so much so that it inspired a handmade gift brought to a location that is not easily found. My mother, next to him, I am certain was rolling her eyes -- again.
After plopping myself down smack on top of them for maybe 45 minutes (loitering) alternately smiling, laughing, crying, contemplating and communicating with the mystery rock designer, I rose to my feet and thought, "Well, that was kinda nice. Maybe I should do it more often." I know I won't, but maybe I'll start bringing my out-of-town friends. And make sure they have a camera.