“The Caretaker”: A Christmas story by Tom Gingerich

Deer graze in Oakland Cemetery on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Story by Tom Gingerich, Kalona

The old man was on his knees busily mulching one of Oakland’s expansive flower beds when he noticed the SUV approaching in the brisk, early November air. Slowly negotiating the narrow, winding roads traversing the hillside, it pulled up near him. A young man emerged, a leather-bound notebook in his hand, and began walking toward him. The older man slowly stood and tossed his hand spade into a nearby wheelbarrow.

“Caretaker,” the old man volunteered, touching his chest, moving forward. “Michael Thoreau. May I help you?”

The young man smiled at him and offered his hand in the early morning chill. “Good to meet you, Michael. I’m Craig Summerhill,” he said. They shook. The old man’s hand was callused and hardened from working long hours. Craig wondered how a man of his age (he looked to be in his seventies) could have such a strong grip and still be working at such a physical job. His scruffy beard and tattered jacket and jeans showed his dedication to the landscape.

“I’ll bet you know quite a bit about this cemetery — its history, don’t you?” he asked. “How long have you been working here, Mr. Thoreau?”

“Call me Michael,” he said, turning to his right and scanning Oakland’s vast expanse, a contented look on his weathered face. Craig followed his gaze and saw the green, peaceful hillside falling far away to the east, densely covered with towering oaks, maples and white pines– with hundreds of tombstones scattered throughout.

“Forever,” he replied, wearing a devoted expression. “Started right out of high school. Worked the summers here for several years before that. Never really wanted to do anything else as strange as that seems to some folks. Fell in love with the place and never left.”

Craig shifted the notebook to his other hand and withdrew a pen from his shirt pocket. “Could you spare some time to fill me in about the place, Michael? Some of the history — your memories about working here?” he asked. “I work for the Press. Doing a feature about the place.”

“Me?” Michael responded.

“Sounds like you’re the guy I should be talking to,” Craig said. “Could you set aside a few minutes sometime?”

The old man smiled. He turned, and gestured toward a large, vine-covered wooden pergola nearby with several benches beneath. “How about now?” he offered. “I was about to take a break anyway.” He shuffled over to a utility vehicle parked nearby and pulled out a thermos from behind the driver’s seat, then reached into a side compartment where he retrieved an extra mug. The two men walked to the pergola and sat down on one of the benches.

Michael opened the thermos and filled the mug, the hot coffee sending tendrils of steam into the cool morning air. He handed it to the young reporter, then filled the lid of the thermos for himself.

“It’s a special place,” he said, leaning back and putting his feet up against a small outcrop of rocks. “Every day is different, and yet the same. There’s a timelessness about it. That’s what’s kept me here all these years.” A sudden gust of wind swept a scattering of leaves across in front of them. Both men shivered and hunched their shoulders. Michael continued. “There are stories — so very many stories.” His eyes teared up suddenly, and he turned his head for a moment.

Craig saw something exceptional in the old man then. He had always been tuned-in to people’s feelings. It was a character trait that went a long way toward making him a good reporter. He leaned forward on the bench. “I can see that this place means a lot to you, Michael,” he said. “Why is that, exactly?”

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “Don’t know what’s come over me lately. I’ve just been thinking a lot about my Katherine. She died three years ago on Christmas day, and life just hasn’t been the same since.” He took a sip of coffee and stared into the distance. “We were married fifty-eight years and did everything together.” He swallowed hard, choking up again. “Her ashes are buried near the base of that large Oak over there.” He pointed with his chin. “I’ll be there with her someday. It’s all arranged. It was our favorite spot. We’d sit there often when she’d join me during a break. It’s the highest point in the cemetery and you can pretty much see everything from there.

“We met in high school and got married as soon as I was hired here the summer after graduation. She became a teacher, fourth graders. Eventually, we bought a small house bordering Oakland’s northeast edge. She was as close to this place as I am and would often spend hours during the summers working right alongside me. It wasn’t like work at all when she was with me.” Thoreau paused, picked up a fallen red-tinted maple leaf from the bench, held it up, studied it.

“We both loved nature,” he continued. “We cherished it — working the landscape. She especially loved roses, red ones, and our home was surrounded by them. She was the best thing that could ever have happened to someone like me.” Craig stopped taking notes and glanced up at the old man.

Oakland Cemetery on Oct. 12, 2022. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

“We discovered we couldn’t have children, so when she died, there was no one left. No relatives on either side. I’ve outlived everyone.” He paused as several blue jays scolded overhead and flew off to the east. “Oakland’s the only love I have left, and I’m grateful to still be able to care for her. But I was worried about who’d take over when I’m gone.” He sighed. “I’ve got a wonky heart, and I know it’s only a matter of time. I’ve found someone though. Name’s Jeff Lawson. He’s in his twenties and I can tell he loves the place, loves the work.” He smiled. “Reminds me of me. I’ve told him I want him to take over whenever I move on, and he’s agreed.”

“I’m glad,” Summerhill said, “and I’m very sorry about Katherine, Michael.” He hesitated, not knowing what to say next, tapping his pen against the page. He knew there were great stories the old man could give him about the place, but didn’t know how to approach it after his display of emotion.

Thoreau solved the young reporter’s dilemma by beginning to share the cemetery’s history on his own. The morning passed by quickly then, and after two hours Craig had enough information and personal experiences for several lengthy feature articles. He was amazed at the old man’s ability to recall poignant details of the cemetery’s origin, of contacts he’d had with grieving relatives, and of ghostly encounters from time to time that couldn’t be explained. “I’ve seen things,” he’d said, “things that have convinced me there’s a future after all this ends. And Katherine will be there waiting.”

Summerhill was surprised at how much the old man’s heartfelt ramblings had affected him. He’d had very few engagements with people who’d touched him with such heart wrenching stories. Michael’s relationship with Katherine clearly had a fairy tale quality about it. And his dedication to Oakland was remarkable. But the old man’s palpable sadness at losing his wife initially worried the young reporter. He was reassured though when reflecting on the old man’s obsessive devotion to his work, finally deciding while driving back to the paper that such devotion would outweigh any thoughts of self-destruction and the pain of losing her.

Thoreau had confided in Craig about how ironic it was that Katherine had passed on Christmas day. He’d made a point of disclosing how special the entire Christmas season had been for them both. It was by far their favorite time of year. Katherine had always said that Christmas was the unending story, the ultimate gift, innocence in its purest form. She said it was all the world needed if it just paid attention. He said she was the person who had first taught him to care about others and not just himself. And Christmas was the catalyst.

He had spoken of the joy that seemed to pervade the final weeks leading up to the day itself each year — selecting the tree, the decorating, the music that brought back childhood, the camaraderie. But without her, the season seemed different — hollow and empty. On the past two Christmas Eves since her passing, he had come by to spend an hour or two at dusk to pay his respects. It was only a small, flat rectangular piece of granite that marked the place where they’d buried her ashes. “That’s the way she wanted it,” he’d said. Only her name, dates of her birth and death, and the words “Wife of Michael” were etched into the marker, with two more words isolated and etched near the bottom… “Gone Home!”

Over the course of the following two weeks Craig developed a friendship with Michael Thoreau that surprised him. The fact that it happened so rapidly was hard for him to understand. There was just something about the old man that had grabbed him and wouldn’t let go. His honesty and dedication — and of course his devotion to Katherine. Craig also met with Jeff Lawson. Michael introduced him on a return trip to Oakland, and Craig spent some time alone with him following him around as he went through the on-going routines of preparing Oakland for winter. He saw definite similarities between the two men. Jeff had clearly developed a love for Oakland in the two years since he was hired, and their work ethics seemed identical. Craig was relieved that Michael had found someone he perceived to be perfect for the transition, no matter when it finally took place.

Thanksgiving saw Summerhill driving to his parents’ house for the annual feast and get-together with his abundant family — uncles, aunts and cousins dropping in throughout the afternoon. He found himself periodically thinking of Michael Thoreau alone in the house he and Katherine had shared all those years. He vowed silently then and there to spend time with him leading up to Christmas.

The succeeding few weeks flew past as they always seem to, leading up to the magical day. It’s an especially busy time for everyone, but Craig made time for the old man despite his busy schedule at the paper. They shared a few meals together and Michael invited him to his house one evening where the conversation predictably turned to Katherine. Craig saw photos for the first time and it was evident to him that the two of them were kindred spirits. It was no wonder her death left him devastated.

The result of Craig’s efforts had led to three lengthy articles published as a series in the first three weeks of December. He received more positive comments about them than anything he’d ever written. He knew much of it was due to the subject matter, but also to the old man’s charisma and vivid recall.

His parents were expecting him in the early afternoon on Christmas day so Craig had made plans to meet with Michael around eight o’clock for breakfast at a local restaurant they both liked. He didn’t want him to spend the entire day alone. When he left his apartment a light snow was beginning to fall — feathery flakes wafting on the brisk, swirling zephyrs of air.

He arrived at the restaurant and waited for a time, becoming concerned when the old man hadn’t shown up. There was no answer when he called his cell. Craig knew deep inside that something was wrong.

Abandoning the restaurant and stopping by the house confirmed his suspicions. The door was unlocked. Calling his name and searching turned up nothing. In desperation, Craig called Lawson and they both agreed something must have happened. Jeff joined him at the house.

Craig had a thought and the two of them headed into Oakland, the idyllic flakes of snow still falling, a light dusting powdering the ground. As they trekked toward the large Oak, Craig thought about that first day he and the old man had met. He remembered it all and especially the old man’s Christmas Eve tradition of paying his respect. Suddenly, Craig knew what he would find.

Emerging from behind a large white pine, the two men approached Katherine’s grave site and saw a bright flash of color against the gray landscape and waffling flakes of white. A deep, rich crimson color near the base of the oak. And then they saw Michael.

It was a long stemmed red rose, and he was holding it in his lap with both hands, seated upright against the tree, facing Katherine’s stone. Both men slowly approached, instantly aware of what they’d discovered.

Craig fell to one knee and leaned close, speaking Michael’s name softly. There was no response. He checked for a pulse. There was none. He stood and stepped away. Michael was staring straight ahead. The light had left his eyes, but he was… smiling.

The men stood there silently surveying the scene, taking in what was rapidly becoming crystal clear to them — what had occurred. Finally, Craig broke the silence.

“His heart. Couldn’t take the cold. Paying his respects.” He choked up. “She loved roses.” “I’ll call someone,” Jeff whispered, getting out his cell.

They remained standing, mesmerized by the look on the old man’s face. That smile said it all. It marked a beginning, not an end. Just like his Katherine, Michael Thoreau had gone home for Christmas.

Frankie Schneckloth/Little Village

An excerpt of this story was first published in Little Village’s December 2022 issues. More than a dozen Christmas stories by Tom Gingerich have been published by the Press-Citizen over the years, and can be found on their website.

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