When a curious onlooker first explores an aerial view of Sonora, Northern California, Pop. 4,903, perhaps idly browsing Google Maps, one might notice the cattle pastures, wineries and pit mines tucked amongst the wildrye, blue oak encrusted hills, but when looking upon the town proper, surrounding the antique shops, bars and the plethora of churches, there remains a rather large slice of real estate devoted to cemeteries. Along the front walk to St. Patrick’s Parish ancient donors bless the mass; behind the prison, a major industry, the City Cemetery sprawls under willows, amid brambles and thyme and the most historic mausoleums; and past Cemetery Lane mossed granite tombstones lie uncared for, unowned it seems, for there’ve been no outcries when land developers move their coffins, acre by acre, to new homes. The largest by far is Mountain Shadow Cemetery, which can be seen as a great meadow overlooking downtown Sonora from all street corners, chapels and hospital windows; the knoll where this author’s father lies.
To be sure, most of Sonora is comprised of retirement communities built by the aforementioned developers which feature gates, winding roads to cul-de-sacs, clubhouses and reedy ponds with actual ducks, going by names like “Quail Hollow,” “Belleview Acres,” “Crystal Falls” and “Peaceful Valley.” This author grew up in “Phoenix Lake Estates,” which suggests an exciting new adventure in retirement filled with wine-tastings, pleasure cruises to Alaska and narrow escapes from native traders during tours of upper Cambodia: Rise from ashy office doldrums to a new life… in reality the golf course is overgrown, the nearby creek takes more of the hillside away with every spring rain, and each house, though different in design, shelters the very same old lady, the kind with cats, ornate throw-pillows and a checkbook only used to pay the boy that mows the lawn every other Sunday.
The author’s mother recently became one of their number: weeds entwine the rusted Chevrolet trailer in the side yard, the shrubs sag, and the bookshelves full of geology texts and business how-to’s collected over thirty years gather dust and random clutter in her home. She and her neighbors are an essential fixture of rural America: through the nation, a fourth of those women older than sixty-five live alone and more than half of those eighty-five and older also live quite alone. Those same women of eighty-five years, who’ve survived everything the United States can throw at them, outnumber their male counterparts two to one, and three-fourths are widowed.
When one arrives in Los Angeles the first things one notices (above the apartment blocks, artist alleys, boutique shops and ethnic centers pocketed away in vale corners) are the skyscrapers, sparkly, translucent glass in heady grays, where thousands go to work in every day. Monuments to something, certainly, they can be seen from every block of town though the names atop them are corporate and impersonal, somehow timeless in that there are no dates below the names.
The Baby Boomer’s kids live here—and they visit their elders when they can—but they live for jobs in the city where there’s employment and opportunity and excitement. The kids pay their taxes into Social Security despite the common, subvocal worry that it’d be a better investment to throw it down a large hole in Siberia; they pay what they can into the 401k, the Roth IRA, their pensions, annuities, life insurance… Distracted as they are by pressing present issues like car payments and christmas presents, they forget that in the dream of retirement only half of them are present, that most of them, like those Baby Boomers, won’t have adequate savings, that student loans will likely dismiss a chance of having a pleasant fifties-suburb house to retire in, that the future still lingers, lonely, poor and long, stretched out before them and not free from work entirely.
The things killing the male retirees, heart disease and cancer, are caused, ostensibly, indirectly, by lifestyle, whether it be the excess bacon or long hours at work and stresses brought home to the family, and nowadays instead of falling away from that lifestyle, more than ever this generation expands it: emails, texts are checked first thing in the morning, most work overtime every week and technology makes the office mobile, present at dinner and bed in the form of pings and messages, LED-bright and deathless. In retirement they’ll supplement their income working at convenience stores and gift shops, as consultants and club-members, and if lucky chairmen of the board—just as Baby Boomers do today, that is, if they don’t perish from the stresses of the workplace before that time (though for this generation, those deaths will be egalitarian, gender-neutral, the life-gap disappearing with the wage-gap).
When this young generation enters into retirement, moves to rural areas and begins to vote conservatively, it will be a shock to have to work, yes, but the greatest shock will be the cemeteries. There are no cemeteries in the city by the ocean, no Skyline Luxury Retirement, no antique shop selling old estate sale finds, no: they won’t save for retirement because they don’t see the future before them: it has been compartmentalized, shrouded, hidden by geography and time, not only by human mental machinations. There’s a whole life-cycle of death in life going unnoticed by those that are destined to participate in it, away from the skyscrapers, apartment blocks and universities. Out of sight, out of mind, gone with the past.
The solution is to teach about death, to embrace it not only in rural areas, where the elderly go to die, but where the youth live, too. City-folk not only miss the reminder of the future but the lessons of the past as well: if the elderly are away in the hills, sequestered, their free time and experience go wasted when they could stand as a testament to contemporary society not only in their existence, mostly female and still working, but in their memories, recorded and passed down to their underlings and apprentices of sorts; how to not make the same mistakes, how to save for the last chapter in one’s life, how to plan for a future that will exist, not an idealist image conjured by lack of exposure to reality.
The author’s grandmother lives in Sonora, too, affectionately nicknamed Gaga. She teaches norwegian swear-words, how to push an enemy in an icy lake and get away with it, and what to put in gingerbread dough to make it strong for roofs and walls. She also teaches her grandchildren how to reach alcoholics, how to make sniffles better, how to read books often and how to entertain guests with simple revelry. When her friend Fran died from falling out a window she laughed uproariously in fits of giggles at the thought of Fran’s feet in the air like flagpoles, her knitted socks flags. Not long ago she once drove all the way to Monterey to see another friend, just to arrive right on time for the funeral, walked in, “who died?” “Oh, really? Well I guess picked a good time to get here then!” And when her son-in-law died she taught by example how to accept it, through well-placed jokes here and there, through feasts and mimosas and celebrations of the life lived, through acceptance of her own time, whereas those saddest were the families up from the city who hardly knew the man, made outsiders by their own choice, and who returned to the city never to speak of it again.