All Saints Day
We’re walking through the narrow lanes of the cemetery in Czermna. It’s just Steve and I tonight. The children are relaxing after our day’s hike. The sun slipped behind the Table Mountains just a few minutes ago, but already the night is black. Darkness is a sudden thing in a wintering Poland.
Inside the cemetery, a thousand flickering candles answer the gloom. Their illumination is made mighty through sheer multiplicity. They throw their light over flowers. Names. Dates. By their glow, a community walks among the stones.
On this night in particular, these are more than inanimate rocks inscribed with names and dates. They are the traces of people. Real people, whose influence trickles through the lives that walk between these stones. The living are different because of their dead. Lit candles and arranged flowers are simply that truth made manifest.
I do not pretend to fully comprehend either the cultural or religious underpinnings of All Saints Day. But this is the piece I can see. It seems to me a powerful tradition, a night when the living come to touch some piece of their dead. Something profound is happening here. If it is not in actuality communing with the dead, certainly a community is forming.
A matriarch and patriarch sit on a bench near a glowing grave. Family members stop to spend a moment together. Friends and neighbors greet one another among the headstones. We pass memorials with epitaphs etched in German, though the names are ones I’d identify as Polish. There is a mixing here, on land that has passed through as many national borders as this one.
We press further in to the cemetery until we stumble upon a painfully tiny grave. We puzzle out the transcription.
The circle of angels has grown
I look around and realize none of the neighboring graves is more than a few feet long. My mother heart begins to crack as I read birth and death dates, achingly close to one another. How does one process a nursery in a graveyard?
A family shuffles into our row. Mother. Father. Two little ones clasped by the hand. A tiny voice rings out.
Mamo, kto to jest?
Mommy, who is this?
There is a murmured reply and then, an excited rejoinder.
Tati, to jest twój brat!
Daddy, it’s your brother!
The fissures that were threatening rip open. Tears pour down my cheeks as we retreat. I feel like an interloper on their private vigil. But, this moment will stay with me. A father bringing his little ones to visit his baby brother. I hope I am not too great an intrusion. I find this a profound privilege to walk on this ground on this night when families come together to watch and to remember.