My father and I used to walk
along the paths around Burying Hill.
We’d read the headstones,
recite the names of the family
he married into. He’d smoke,
I softly breathed into my harmonica
as my ancestors curled up
in their coffins and sucked the thumbs
of roots that grew around them
and tickled their bones.
It had become sort of a tradition.
We’d walk away from the family reunion
that clamored at the end of the road.
He needed a cigarette and I
needed some time away from the running,
sweaty cousins I barely knew.
He and I didn’t look alike
and I was the child of a generation
he didn’t really understand,
but we shared this; getting away,
walking the paths and pasts
of cemeteries or parks,
places where things had happened,
places we could sink our heads
into and look around for stories.
I’d read a man’s name, he’d repeat it,
maybe with an accent
if it sounded like it came
from a far off part of the world.
I’d read the name of the wife,
he’d call to her in the voice of the husband,
breathing their names into the air once again.
Isn’t this how we keep the dead alive?
We say their names,
we give their hoarse voices sound,
put light back in the cold, dark sockets
of their skulls. We say their names
and remember the time we spent.
This summer I went back to the green,
rolling hills of New York, the reunion,
the cousins, the sweaty kids
running and spinning under the broad leaves
of old oaks and white stacks of clouds.
While my family coalesced
around the house my ancestors built
I walked up to Burying Hill.
I strolled the paths, stopping at times
to read names, whisper them
back into the air, rouse them
from their cool slumber.
At my father’s headstone I was silent,
unable to reproduce the deep hum,
the clear song of his voice
that I knew so well.
Maybe sons are destined to feel inadequate
in front of their fathers.
Maybe I need him to rest
a little longer before I call him back,
before I say his name and he stirs
in the dark chambers of my heart.