Wednesday, October 1, 1997
At cemetery, caretaker puts
life in order

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kirsten Holbrook manages the office at Rest Haven Memorial Park. From her horseshoe-shaped wooden desk just inside the art-deco building, she greets everyone who visits the offices of the Evendale cemetery.

When she invited me to share a meal as part of "Lunch With Cliff," she warned me we might be interrupted quite a bit. It happens to her every day. Cemetery offices can be busy places. Sad, too.

On this day, however - which turns out to be Kirsten's 32nd birthday - there are no visitors in sight.

"I can't believe it's so quiet," she said, digging into her brown-bag meal. "Usually the phone is ringing, faxes are coming in and people are standing at my desk."

Usually it's more like the day she looked up from her desktop lunch and saw a "big, burly man." He was 6-feet, 7-inches tall if he was an inch.

And he was crying.

Seeing his tears, Kirsten put down her sandwich and softly said hello.

The man told her he was ashamed and embarrassed. He could not find his father's grave.

Kirsten tried to comfort him. She said even though she's worked at the cemetery for eight years, and walks the grounds daily, she still gets lost. It's a big place, 80 acres. As she spoke, she looked at a map and found the grave.

The big man thanked her, dried his tears and left.

Striving to learn

She quietly thanked God for her blessings before going back to lunch. She reminded herself that she's very lucky. Her parents are still alive. She has a "strong, healthy, intelligent son at home who's a head taller than I am."

His name is Aaron. He's 13 and an atypical teen-ager.

"He pays attention to me. I ask him to do something. And," said his proud and somewhat astonished mom, "he does it."

That helps when you're a single parent working full time and taking classes at the University of Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College. For the last seven years, she's lived with her son in the caretaker's house on the grounds of the cemetery. It's just a three-minute walk from home to the office, where Kirsten eats at her desk late mornings so she can spend her lunch hour in the classroom.

"I never got a chance to go to college," she said. "I got married at 17. I was still in high school. My son was born right after I turned 18. I never had a chance to further my education. I've got a lot to learn."

She's thankful for her job "because it keeps me grounded. It reminds you to make the most out of life. Because it's not always going to be there."

Sees things differently

Some people in Kirsten's shoes might not feel as lucky. She's divorced from a man who she said "drank too much, told too many lies and did not pay child support.

"Financially, it's been very difficult," she added. "I've never been on welfare or food stamps. But I had to declare bankruptcy. And I buy my clothes at Goodwill."

Still, she has this positive, caring outlook on life.

"I could have wallowed in the mire of sorrow and been negative," she said. "But what good would that do anybody?"

By saying this, she's not asking for pity. Or a handout. She's just explaining who she is.

Kirsten Holbrook is the woman with a heart who answers the phone at Rest Haven. Her heart breaks when she takes a call about making burial arrangements for a teen-ager who has committed suicide.

"I have to watch myself and not get too emotionally involved," Kirsten said. "But those are the saddest calls to take. These kids had their entire lives ahead of them. Didn't they know things would get better?"

When she gets one of these calls, she thinks of the people who say, "That couldn't happen to me. My child wouldn't do that." She's quick to remind herself these things don't just happen to somebody else.

"I always say, 'It could be me.' "

Then she walks home and gives her son a hug.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.