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David Hassler: Prayer Wheel

We always called it “the circle,” my old childhood street. One day my cousin Bill took my father, my brother, and me up in a little four-seater plane, and we flew over our neighborhood. I could see our street from the air, how it made a nearly perfect circle. The driveways looked like the spokes on a wheel. I could see our little red ranch house next to Steve Mitchell’s house with its backyard pool. I could see the river just beyond our backyard, twisting and curving closer to the circle, then flowing on.

My mother was still alive then, but she didn’t go up in the plane with us. There wasn’t room for her. It was just us boys up in the sky, looking down at our neighborhood. My father took slides and later projected them onto our basement wall for our mother to see.

When my mother died at two in the morning, my father, my brother, and I came together in the living room with our arms around each other’s shoulders, our heads bent, like parachutists falling in a circle. We could not let go of each other.

Later that morning, my brother and I decided to go for a walk before the sun came up. We couldn’t stay in the house any longer. The sky was beginning to turn gray, and everything was still. We began walking around the circle. None of our neighbors had turned on their lights yet. We felt happy to be moving about, swinging our arms as if to convince ourselves that we were still alive.

We passed our house every ten minutes or so, but we didn’t stop. We agreed we needed to help our father now, to be good to him. We spoke as if we were making a pact. Neither of us could talk about our mother or ourselves, only about our father.

Our hearts pumped hard as we walked. We were glad to be doing something with our energy, to have someplace to go, though our route always brought us back again to our familiar red ranch, its driveway spilling down to the road. After a while we began to repeat this phrase like a chant: We need to help Dad. We need to help Dad. And slowly the circle began to turn. From up above, it must have looked like a giant prayer wheel spinning — two boys walking along their street, the only thing moving at this hour of the morning.

The eponymous standing rock in Standing Rock Cemetery in Kent, Ohio.


At the age of fifteen, I got a summer job mowing grass in Standing Rock Cemetery, where my mother is buried. Early each morning I rode my bike to the garage at the back of the cemetery, where our boss, Al, checked our mowers and sharpened the blades. For $3.35 an hour I pushed my mower over section after section of a numbered grid. The dew-covered grass clogged my mower and stained my running shoes green. Its sweet, tangy scent mixed with the fumes of oil and gas.

It took three of us to mow all the grass. Ricky was seventeen or eighteen years old, but his face was already lined and creased like an old man’s. He said he had a son he hardly ever saw. Before Ricky had dropped out of school, I used to see him smoking outside the shop class with a crowd of other boys. Ricky liked to brag about how he’d gotten “fucked up” the night before. He cursed about everything, especially his father, who he said was a “fucking drunk.” I never heard Ricky speak of his mother. I could hardly imagine his having one.

Jimmy was in his late thirties or early forties. We were told he was “slow.” His mother dropped him off and picked him up every day. At lunch Jimmy would open his brown paper bag and take out a neatly wrapped sandwich, a little bag of chips, sliced carrots, and a brownie covered in tinfoil. I felt sure his mother packed his lunch for him. Al had warned us not to anger or upset Jimmy. Sometimes Jimmy would stop mowing and gaze straight ahead. I often wondered what he was thinking. I believed he was smarter than we thought and perhaps knew something the rest of us didn’t.

My mother’s gravestone was near Al’s garage. I didn’t like to look at it. I was angry at her stone, which was oval-shaped with a reddish pink tint. I hated how shiny it was. We had purchased it in town at Portage Marble and Granite, which displayed its wares on the front lawn like a car dealership. I hated the businesses that had made money from my mother’s death: the funeral home, the monument company, the cemetery. In the funeral home I’d glanced into her open casket and then looked away. It seemed wrong to look at her. She wore a white dress with red and blue stitching that she had sewn for the bicentennial celebration. She looked as if her last two months in the hospital had been erased, as if her illness hadn’t really happened. I remembered picking out her headstone, the wake at the funeral home, the memorial service at our church, but I could not remember her burial. After her funeral, we never brought flowers or a wreath to place on her grave.

My father, my brother, and I were better at mourning the deaths of the pet rabbits, turtles, and birds we had buried in the corner of my mother’s garden or set adrift in the river that flowed behind our house. Once, we floated a dead turtle down the river in a cardboard box while my father, a poet, recited a sonnet he had composed for the occasion. My father wrote many “dead animal” poems. If there were such a genre, he would have been its leading author. In one of my father’s poems, he quoted something I had said: “ ‘Here lie two bunnies dead; do you hear me, God?’ ” In a way, that was my first poem, an elegy embedded in one of my father’s poems. My mother never attended these mock funerals. She let her boys and her poet husband play at grief. But when she died, none of us knew how to grieve for her.

Perhaps mowing lawns in Standing Rock Cemetery was an ignorant and faltering attempt to honor my mother’s memory. Yet all summer I went out of my way to snub her stone and show my disdain for it, the way you might seek out someone you’re mad at so that person can see you pretending not to notice her.

On breaks Ricky, Jimmy, and I would shut off our mowers and sit on the gravestones, though we weren’t supposed to. Occasionally we’d read the name engraved on the stone, but we never wondered aloud about the deceased’s life. Instead we listened to Ricky brag about dropping acid in the school locker room, or having sex with Kelly Jones in the photography class’s darkroom, or driving his dad’s truck off Ravenna Road while drunk at three in the morning and walking away without a bruise.

We always kept an eye out for Al, who drove around in an old Ford pickup. We knew Al could hear our mowers from anywhere in the cemetery and would listen for them to start back up after our morning and afternoon breaks. Al’s main job was to dig the graves. His son and nephew did most of the work. Al would sit up in his backhoe while they stood in the hole with their picks and shovels, cutting roots, trimming back the sides. Then they’d place boards over the opening and lay down green plastic turf before the family arrived. We often heard the three of them complain about a stubborn root or how the rain got in and threatened to collapse the hole. Once or twice I heard Al complain, like a waiter kvetching in the kitchen, about a family that had been too demanding. For Ricky, Jimmy, and me a burial meant another break from mowing. We’d watch from a distance, our mowers turned off so as not to disturb the service. It never occurred to me to feel sad for the people at these funerals, except once, when Ricky and I watched a child being buried in a tiny coffin.

Al, with his pinched eyes, thin lips, unshaven chin, and high cheekbones, had the face of a gravedigger. The business face of the cemetery was the rosy-cheeked visage of Mr. Harrison, who met with the families and sold the plots. I remembered him from when I’d come with my father to choose my mother’s plot, but if he remembered me, he never let on. He stayed in his office in the red brick building with the white wood trim. He had no grass stains on his shoes, no dirt or grease under his nails. He handled papers and shook customers’ hands. His cheeks were as smooth and shiny as my mother’s gravestone.

I preferred Al’s office, where we gathered at lunch. I’d sit on his dirty orange sofa and eat whatever I’d packed for lunch — a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, an apple, a bag of Fritos — and I’d stare at Al’s wall calendar, with its pictures of big-breasted women in bikinis or models in high heels and lacy skirts lifted by the wind, and I’d listen to Ricky go on about his sexual exploits and how he’d gotten fucked up. Ricky would tease Jimmy and ask him when he planned to get some “snatch,” and Jimmy would just stare straight ahead, chewing his ham sandwich, and Ricky would wonder aloud if Jimmy even knew what to do with a woman. I didn’t know yet myself, though I had learned to neck with girls at school dances, holding their bodies tight against mine. But Ricky never teased me, and I laughed right along with him.

I wondered if the guys knew my mother was buried in the cemetery, near Al’s garage. Al and his son and his nephew must have dug my mother’s grave and placed the boards over the hole and laid down the green plastic turf. But that summer I did not want to think about my mother or remember her burial service. I cannot even remember if I mowed the grass around her grave. I was happy just to pedal my bike to Al’s garage and push the mower through the thick green grass.

Copyright 2023 David Hassler. This essay was first published by The Sun.

David Hassler directs the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University. He is the author or editor of nine books of poetry and nonfiction, including Red Kimono, Yellow Barn; Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community; and Speak a Powerful Magic: Ten Years of the Traveling Stanzas Poetry Project.

3 comments on “David Hassler: Prayer Wheel

  1. laureanne2013
    April 22, 2023

    Beautiful, beautiful and moving. “When my mother died at two in the morning, my father, my brother, and I came together in the living room with our arms around each other’s shoulders, our heads bent, like parachutists falling in a circle. We could not let go of each other.”….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      April 22, 2023

      Yes, I love David Hassler’s writing. Clear and evocative.



  2. J. Zheng
    April 21, 2023

    Another strong piece by David.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on April 21, 2023 by in Opinion Leaders.

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