I recently took a trip to visit my son in Chicago. I grew up in the surrounding suburbs, and I always feel comfortable when I return. From the familiar tenor of the seasons to the hard-vowel inflections of the cabbies and baristas, it’s the undeniable fulcrum of my being.
The last bluster of winter was making itself known, with winds cracking in from the big lake, scattering a mix of rain and snowflakes. My son lives in the Edgewater/Andersonville neighborhood, one of the city’s agreeable and unpretentious residential locales. Block after block features nineteenth-century, three-story Victorian houses of every permutation of design and color, built cheek-by-jowl of wood, brick and stucco, with an occasional Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bungalow thrown in the mix, all with affable front porches and gravel-paved alleyways behind. The sidewalks are cracked and heaved from the roots of venerable shade trees, a hazard that necessitates a mindful pace. Impressive limestone churches appear with regularity, and during the day the hustle of the surrounding city is joined by the squeals and laughter of schoolchildren released from classes and loosed upon playgrounds where they romp in complete disregard for any inclement weather.
During the day while my son was at work I took long walks, hatted and gloved against the chill. I didn't know this part of the city specifically—it's a big metro!—and I wanted to explore. Despite the fact that the streets are laid out in a reliable, predictable grid and that the Google maps app on my iPhone practically guarantees that only a buffoon could get lost, I got lost. I ended up on streets that didn't make sense (to me) and as I wandered about, pawing with a chilled finger on the surface of my phone and stumbling now and then over an uprooted chunk of sidewalk, I found myself at the entrance to Rosehill Cemetery.
As a fan of serendipity, I ventured in.
My first impression was, Holy cow! This place is fricken huge! Indeed, the markers stretched to the horizon in all directions, and the grounds were webbed with meandering roads. I would learn later that Rosehill is Chicago’s largest cemetery, actually one of the largest in the country, encompassing over 350 acres and featuring (not sure if featuring is the appropriate word here, but it serves its purpose) somewhere around a quarter-million gravesites.
For ambulatory immersion, few places can match a cemetery, especially one as large and sprawling as Rosehill, and I began to wander about. From what I could see, I was the only one there (the only living one, that is). It was as if an enormous private park had been set aside for just for me. It was quiet (duh) and an exquisite respite from the tremors of the big city, especially some of the more ferocious main arteries that my peregrinations had forced me to traverse (looking at you, West Devon Avenue, where crosswalks apparently are considered “target-rich environments” and small man in a battered Honda Civic tried to send me to Rosehill permanently.)
I was blown away by the diversity and architectural complexity of the markers. So many! From soaring obelisks of carved granite 30 feet tall to tiny wedges of limestone nestled quietly into the earth. Statues and mighty crypts to honor the resting places of captains of Chicago industry set amidst plain, 150-year-old stones of soldiers who died in the Civil War. I much admired a pair of simple markers, each just a foot long and maybe eight inches wide. The barely discernible, weather-worn inscriptions said, “Father” and “Mother.”
I walked for miles and savored the tranquility and ambient scenery. There are rolling hills and three lakes and a nature preserve in Rosehill, and chevrons of honking geese floated past with regularity. I loved the trees. The entire grounds are populated with magnificent red oaks, their bare branches filigreed against the gray sky and their sturdy trunks lending grace and dignity to the surroundings. There are other trees on the grounds, sure—willows by the lakes and an occasional spruce in its evergreen cloak. But the oaks predominate not only with their number, but with their presence and a mysterious, storybook-like sentience. Many were probably planted before the birth of the very people now interred under their mantling limbs.
I’m not one to stroll about in a cemetery and get wistful and philosophic about the meaning of life. Life’s too short for that. But I do like trees. And I like knowing there are living things that can and will gracefully outlive us.
By the way, if you like your Chicago with a West Coast connection, try the sweet and fanciful novel “Chicago” by
one of Oregon’s favorite writers, Brian Doyle. He was a prolific and inspiring author who died all-too-soon
in 2017 at the age of 60.