The Gated Community

Heather Haldeman
Long Story Short

What a way to start the morning,” I said to my mother, as we drove past the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevard—supposedly, the busiest intersection in the world.  “What street do I turn on?”  

“Let me see…Glendon! That’s it,” she replied, pointing her index finger at the next street sign on the right.  Her acrylic nail looked ridiculously long and was painted metallic gold. 

I made a right and reduced my speed to a crawl.

“Turn in here!”  Mom said suddenly.    

“This leads to the cemetery?”  I asked. “Mom, the sign says ‘Theatre Parking.’”

“That’s if you go left.  See, there’s an arrow on the right,” she said, pointing the gold talon again. A little diamond ornament on the end of her nail caught the sunlight.  “Plain as day–‘Westwood Village Memorial Park.’”

“This place isn’t easy to find,” I said, steering my Volvo wagon into the narrow driveway behind a bank. “I can’t believe your cemetery shares an alley with a multi-plex theatre in the middle of Westwood Village.”

“Been here for years,” Mom said. “Westwood’s a great location.  I’ll be so happy here in the middle of all these tall buildings.  And, it’s just a stone’s throw from Beverly Hills.”

I had been an undergrad at UCLA and never knew such a place existed less than a mile from the campus. “It looks like a mini Central Park,” I remarked, as we drove past the modest gates.

 I’d been dreading this day ever since Mom’s morning call to me last week when she suggested that I go with her to see the burial plots that she and my step-father, Dougie, had just purchased.

Mom was excited; she had phoned at the crack of dawn, waking me from a sound sleep.  

“I’ve finally made it into showbiz!” she had said, on the other end of the line.    

In my morning haze, I couldn’t figure out what on earth show business had to do with burial plots.

“Fannie Brice is buried close to ours.  She has all her group reserved there, and we’ll be in the same area as Carol Burnett’s family.  But, guess who’s right across the lawn from us?”

“Who, Mom?”  I said, fully awake now.

“Marilyn Monroe!  You know, people used to say that we look alike.  Do you realize that she’d be the same age as me if she’d lived?”

I pushed back the pillows and sat up in the bed.  “It’s hard for me to talk about this with you, Mom.  It scares me.”

“Relax, I’ll take you there next week,” she had offered.  “Then, you can see it for yourself.”

The grounds were peaceful and manicured.  A variety of shade trees created a natural setting among the tombstones that were embedded in the lawn.   Impatiens, azaleas, and begonias in cheery pink colors were in full bloom.

In the distance, at the far end of the cemetery, a small crowd of people were gathered in a circle.  Everyone was dressed in black, except for one tall man in tan slacks and a dark blue shirt.  I looked away, to give them their privacy. 

My mother, Dougie’s fourth wife, is a youthful seventy-seven.  And, my stepfather, Dougie, Mom’s third husband, is eighty-six.  There’s no stopping him either. He’s just recovered from heart surgery and has hired a “low key” personal trainer at the gym.  I was glad that Mom was so enthusiastic about her and Dougie’s “final resting place,” but the whole idea of their dying made me uneasy.

I parked the car by a path just outside the small chapel, which was adjacent to the offices of the mortuary.  While Mom walked slowly, enjoying the beauty of the grounds, I stepped up my pace and looked straight ahead past the open door of the chapel for fear of seeing something morbid, like a coffin. 

Once we entered the office, we were greeted by a bland-looking gentleman somewhere in his early thirties, who sat behind a high desk.  He was on the phone and motioned for us to take a seat in the foyer. “I’ll be right with you,” he mouthed.

“Let’s stand,” I said to Mom, not missing the boxes of Kleenex discreetly placed on every table top.  

“Mrs. Mac Dougall?” the man asked my mother after he hung up the phone. His hair matched the color of his beige dress shirt, his skin, a shade lighter.  Directing us to another room, he told us to wait for Enid, the sales rep, who had helped my parents before. “She’ll only be a minute,” he said.  “Make yourself at home.”

“Home?” I thought, as we made our way past a large television that was playing a documentary-type tribute on the life of Ronald Reagan to an empty room.

My mother plopped herself down at the table and instantly took out a small spiral notebook, she refers to as her “Tablet,” and crossed off “Cemetery-Heather.”

I continued to stand, still too uptight to sit.  “Mom, those casket molding things,” I said, nodding in the direction of the far wall displaying various casts of partial caskets. “It’s like shopping for carpet, you know, with samples and all?  Weird.”

“Don’t be silly,” she laughed, “People are dying to get in here.”

I walked over to where there was a plethora of urns on display at the opposite corner of the room.  Little white tiles with prices were placed at the base of each urn, similar to the way jewelry is priced in an upscale store.

“Look,” Mom said, pointing to a cylindrical copper urn on the end of the bottom shelf.  “That’s ours!”

“This one?” I replied, tapping it as if it were sizzling hot.  “The price says $450. Mom, it’s the cheapest one.”  I suggested that maybe she should have gone with the cloisonné one, or maybe the porcelain one with the roses.   

“Did Dougie talk you into the plain one?” I asked.  She mentioned earlier that Dougie had tried to bargain with Enid to get a discount on their plots.  He had already purchased two for him and his third wife, Marion. “Look,” he had told Enid, “I don’t want to be next to her anymore.  That leaves an empty spot that you can sell again.”  

Mom insisted that she wanted a simple urn.  “But, wait ‘till you see our actual plot,” she said, enthusiastically. “Dougie went all out for that one.”

Enid appeared at the doorway, smiling wide.  “Good Morning, Mrs. MacDougall.  And, this must be your daughter,” she said, the smile dripping down just a hair. “Sorry to keep you waiting.” 

I could tell that she adored my lively mother.  Mom greeted her with a wave of her pen, causing the red and white sequins, spelling out “God Bless America” on her blue t-shirt to shimmer under the bright ceiling light. 

“I’m still looking,” she said, referring to finding a man for Enid. “I just don’t know any single guys anymore, and with your kind of work, the timing’s all wrong for you to meet somebody.”

Enid was dressed in an appropriate somber blue skirt and blazer. I could see a lacey white camisole peeking out from the top of her jacket. No doubt that she was prim and professional, but, she still had feelings. Leave it to Mom to find out that Enid was single and would love to find a mate.

“How do you deal with all the families and their grief?” I asked Enid.

“With compassion,” she answered in a soothing voice.  “There’s no real training for compassion.  You just have to have it in you.”

 “You’ll just love where we are,” Mom interrupted.  “It’s very exclusive,” she added, fiddling with her frosted bobbed hairdo. “We’re in the Garden Gated Estates!”

“Then, shall we?” Enid said, sweeping her hand toward the door.

As we headed down the path to Mom’s “gated community,” I was constantly aware of the internment at the other end of the park.  

Enid led us to an upright smooth granite monument about five feet high.  “This is where your parents will be,” she told me.

I fingered the blank gold leaf plaque at the top of the monument.  

“See, we have top billing!” Mom said.  

I looked around at the bright yellow and orange marigolds and the elegant row of topiary rose bushes nearby.  

“Not bad, eh?”

“Everything’s done,” Enid said, “Except your parent’s have to pick an epitaph.”

“She’s doing it,” Mom said, pointing to me.

“I am?”

“You’ll know the right thing to say.”

“How about ‘Together Forever,’” I said, remembering one of the epitaphs on display in the offices.

“No,” Mom said. “You never know what happens in the afterlife and I don’t want to be tied down.”  

Mom chatted with Enid, but I fazed out of the conversation.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of the far end of the lawn. Two gardeners had arrived on the scene, and there were some gaps in the tightly knit group now.  I hadn’t seen the tiny white casket before.  The gardeners, in their Village Memorial Park uniforms, gently lowered the casket into the ground.  Couples and threesomes embraced.

On the way out, I drove slowly around the perimeter of the park and Mom proudly pointed out Marilyn Monroe’s grave with the ever-present fresh flower. 

“I can’t take dealing with all of this,’ I said.

“Look, sweetheart,” she joked.  “When I wake up each morning, if there are no candles burning, and if I don’t see any flowers or hear music, I get up.”

“But, how can you be so at ease with this?”

“Listen, darling, I love life.  You know I do,” she explained.  “But, frankly, Heather, this is reality.”  

As soon as we turned out of the gate, Mom pulled the visor down and started to paint her lips with her favorite, Revlon’s “Crystal Cut Coral.”  She swept the tube round and round her lips.  Smacking them, she flipped the visor back up.

“So, how about going to The Cheesecake Factory?” she asked, tossing the lipstick back in her oversized white purse.  “I love the bread there.”