Last week I took a personal day and spent it wandering around a cemetery.
I’m researching a local woman who was a child movie star in the days of silent film. She was the first, and maybe forever, love of a famous writer, but life washed them apart. After a second successful career in vaudeville, this extraordinary woman moved to Florida with her husband, and the story of her life grows muffled, with only a little shout out here and there before her death.
She fascinates me, so like a good English teacher/research queen, I am finding out all I can about her. A line in an article noted that she died in Florida, was cremated, and her remains are interred at a cemetery a mile or two away from my house.
I drove there on a gray Sunday afternoon, drove through the august stone gate, and stopped the car. The grounds stretched on forever and a day, crisscrossed by paved drives. Old graves mingled with new ones. I got out and walked a bit and could discern no order. But I found the office, in a snug little cottage in the middle of the cemetery, with a sign that says it is open week days, 7 AM until 3.
The next week, I called to see if any preparation was needed; the cheerful voice on the other end told me to have the name of the deceased and the date of death with me. “And be prepared,” she warned, “you’re going to be flipping through binders.”
That actually sounded kind of like fun, so I found a work day devoid of appointments and requested personal time. I gathered my notes. My son, Jim, wanted to know where I was headed. I explained and he asked to come along. I wondered if he’d really be interested, or if he’d find the expedition a little morbid. But he said he’d really like to go, so we piled into the car and drove to the cottage.
We slapped through a spindled screen door into a bright office. Beautifully aged photographs were artfully arranged on walls and shelves. “My family,” the lady behind the desk told us. Solemn babies; trussed up young couples in black and white looking as though they been holding their breath just a little too long; a woman in a Gibson girl getup with a decided glint. Fascinating reminders, in a place connected with sorrow, that vibrant history lives.
I explained my mission and my readiness to carefully flip aging pages.
“Well, wait just a minute,” the lady said. “Some of this stuff has been scanned.”
She tapped and scrolled, hmmm-ing and sighing, until she got to the part she was aiming for.
“Now. Who we looking for?”
My subject is buried with her mother, and I know her father’s remains are here, too, so I supplied the parents’ names. That was a dead end. But then I gave her the actual subject’s name and we hit pay dirt. The lady gave me the plot number and the location.
Jim was very quiet. “Ready?” I asked. He turned from looking at sepia photos on a wall, and nodded.
Jim suggested we walk to our destination, a section right near the arched stone entrance. The area has a large sloping lawn, with fenced family plots and mausoleums, graves so old they been patched back together, and brand new resting places where the earth’s still bare of grass. We started at the beginning and systematically searched row by row.
Jim exclaimed about whole families, entire histories of 150+ years, resting in a row, about babies interred many years before their grieving parents, about soldiers and sailors, and about the quotes people choose to engrave on a stone. And then, both struck by the moment, we found them.
“This is COOL,” said Jim.
There are the graves of her parents, but my person’s got no stone, no marker. Her ashes have been placed on top of her mother’s remains, but there’s not a sign or symbol to tell she’s there.
Oh, that makes me sad, to have a life be truly swallowed up and hidden.
It used to bother my mother, too, and we spent a lot of time, when we were children, driving to cemeteries.
There were five of us thrivers and survivors, but two of my parents’ children had died very young. At least once a year, we would bundle into the old Buick and trek to Buffalo, where Sharon and Tommy were buried.
The trip itself was an adventure; sometimes, when we were flush, we’d take the new New York State Thruway, stopping at the booths to pay the tolls. Other times we would take Route Twenty; in Silver Creek, it went up a steep hill, and there were times it didn’t feel like the old car, with its seven passengers, would make it. My father, a superb driver, would shift and grind the gears; in the back seat we chanted encouragement. My mother’s hands, white-knuckled, were pressed against the dashboard.
We always made it, and it always felt dicey.
Sharon had a headstone, but Tommy, who had died hours after his birth when my parents were very young and very insolvent, had only a little round cement marker with a number on it. One year, there was a deep hole right next to Sharon’s headstone; it must have been a rainy spring, and I remember Dad talking about erosion. He reached his hand into the hole and I thought my heart would stop. He and my mother filled in the gap and planted their flowers.
I had nightmares of a little girl imprisoned in an underground hole, lost and alone.
Years later, after my mother’s death, my younger brother Sean and my father went to visit the graves and found the grassy fields were gone; the graves were swimming in a sea of gravel. They explored, quickly made arrangements, and the babies were moved. They rest now next to our parents, and Tommy finally has a place and a name on a stone. I think it was a great satisfaction to my father in his last days to know where all his children rested.
Those weren’t the only graves we visited. In Fredonia, my mother visited the grave of her friend Barbara in the new part of the Old Pioneer Cemetery. There was a marker there like a gray stone tree trunk; I was fascinated by the stones that had fading oval photographs of the person who lay below.
We went to St. Joseph’s Cemetery, close to home, regularly, to put flowers on Mrs. Murgatroyd’s grave, and to say a prayer at the spot where Mrs. Coughlin lay. In Buffalo, we visited the graves of Millard Fillmore and Red Jacket.
We visited a monument to a bride in Jamestown, New York; a statue in a glass case wore her bridal dress. Legend had it that she died in a carriage accident on the way to the wedding. Although I am sure I remember reading that the legend was untrue, it sent shivers up spines, and so people clung to the story.
‘Some people,’ my mother mused, ‘might think it was morbid to take kids to sightsee in a cemetery.’ But there was something about a neglected grave that upset and shamed her, and there was something about the history in a graveyard, the stories revealed by the dead souls’ headstones and markers, that intrigued her.
I think Jim felt some of that same fascination as we searched for Eva’s grave…a sense of whole lives, of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, entrusted to that hallowed ground.
On Sunday–Father’s Day, I will make a visit to my parents’ grave, putting in some annuals and making sure things are neat and trimmed. I’ll plant some flowers for Sharon and Tommie, too, and stop to say a prayer for Aunt Dott and Uncle Bill. And, if the day is nice, I will wander through the grounds before climbing into the car for the four hour trip home. I’ll read the stones and marvel at the stories they share and hope that, in some way, the souls who died many years ago will know that they are not forgotten.