A Modest Purchase
by Richard Whittaker, Aug 6, 2021
photo, r. whittaker
Today I went down to the local gravestone vendor to see if I might pick up some pieces of broken stone. Why wouldn’t scraps accumulate from flaws or mishaps in the ordinary course of cutting and dressing memorial stones? It seemed reasonable to think I’d be able to pick up some nice pieces of marble and granite for next to nothing from such discards. And since Mountain View Cemetery, over a hundred and fifty years old, is not far from my home in Oakland, that’s where I headed.
Soon I was standing in front of a display of headstones that came right up to the edge of the sidewalk. It’s funny how little one can anticipate the experience of taking an often small step into another world. I found myself lost for awhile in this sea of headstones with their graceful designs cut into polished surfaces in bas relief - each waiting only for names and dates to be added. Then pulling myself out of my reverie, I looked around for the place where the actual cutting and polishing is done. Spotting a good candidate, I began threading my way through the headstones towards a simple structure in the distance. As I got nearer, I saw undressed blocks of granite and marble lined up in rows. I could see shades of red, black, gray and brown. Once I was close by, I saw that each piece was polished on one side – probably came that way from a wholesaler, I guessed. The soft, natural red was particularly striking, but each type of stone had its own beauty.
A tall, gray haired man with a pleasant manner approached and asked, “Can I help you?”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t know. I’m just looking for some broken pieces, if you have any. I’m thinking of giving some of them as Christmas presents.” Saying this, I smiled hoping my statement might hit a sweet spot somewhere between whacky and charmingly original.
The man nodded his head as if the idea seemed perfectly ordinary.
“Okay!” I thought to myself, feeling a little surge, “This might work!”
I’d already noticed that not far from where I stood a soft gray piece of granite lay on the ground broken into three pieces. I pointed. “Something like that's what I had in mind.”
He nodded his head noncommittally.
“Where do you get all this wonderful stone?” I asked.
“From all over the world! Actually most of it now comes from India,” he said with a little more feeling.
I shook my head as if to say, “Isn't that something?” followed by, “How do you cut the letters?”
“Sandblasting! We set a rubber template on the stone and sandblast it.”
“No kidding?” This time, I nodded my head thoughtfully up and down.
A little time passed as we stood together in the hazy winter sun. He hadn’t showed his cards yet.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked.
“We have cores,” he said.
“Cores? What do you mean?”
“Here’s one,” he said, picking up a round plug of granite that had been sawed out of a slab. “We cut these out so there’s place where people can place flowers.”
"Flowers? But of course," I thought, absorbing another bit of knowledge about headstones.
“I was thinking of something more like these pieces here,” I said, pointing again to the pieces of broken granite on the ground.
“Okay, Follow me,” he said.
We walked into a large enclosed area passing several large slabs of unfinished stone leaning against a wall.
“Some of those weight five or six hundred pounds,” he said.
We arrived at a spot far in the rear where smaller pieces of granite were stacked, some of them broken.
“We keep these for people who come in and want something for a pet.”
Taking a moment to digest this revelation, I collected myself. “Yes, this is what I’m looking for,” I said, picking up a broken piece of red granite. What would you want for a piece like this?”
And so a modest deal was struck. I went back to my car and brought it up to load my six or seven pieces of granite. Driving home, I was feeling pleased. Most of those pieces of granite are still sitting around. One is on my desk as I write.
Whenever I take the time to look at one and pick it up, the original pleasure returns - the same as always. And I did give one away as a Christmas present. It was a heavy gift, literally - and wrapped, it created a good deal of suspense: what could it be?
That solid piece of granite, its polished side balanced by its broken side, was accepted with surprise and, as I could see, unfeigned appreciation.
But if you think about it, is that so surprising?