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Monday, May 30, 2011

Monuments and Memories

I suppose I was like any other kid who thought that graveyards were spooky places. Well, at night and during Halloween, anyway.

On Memorial Day, however, cemeteries were places where we had a picnic lunch and my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins would tell us stories about our relatives who were buried there.

My grandparents made sure we knew about their parents and grandparents and other relatives who were buried in the church graveyard back in Portugal or the Azores - and a few uncles who were in the Navy or were fishermen who had lost their lives and were buried at sea.

My father, being a WWII vet, would make sure to place American flags or red poppies at the gravesides of some of his buddies who had died. He was always very solemn as he knelt in front of the gravestone, said a prayer and then placed the flag or a red paper poppy by the stone as he saluted his fallen brothers.

He was always scrupulous about the order: God before State. Church before Government. Prayer before Salute.

Then, the stories were told, which also had a certain order.

"He was a good man. A brave soldier. I remember the time when we were kids when..... . ." The stories were often funny... a human foible, a mistake of mischief, a silly joke, a prank. We would giggle and he would hope we didn't see him wipe a tear from his eye as he looked away, off into the distance.

I remember being fascinated by the story of my Uncle Auggie who had died in a factory explosion at the age of nineteen. He was my grandparents' eldest child, their first born son, who had been working in the factory since he was sixteen. He had just married - a young girl of seventeen.... Lorraine? - and they had an infant son who had been named after his dad.

My family's sadness was deepened by the fact that Uncle Auggie's wife had broken off all ties with her in-laws and had never let her son be part of our lives. I suppose that was one of the ways she dealt with her grief. She was only seventeen or eighteen, a widow with an infant son. She was young and wanted to get on with her life. I suppose she thought the way to do that was to leave the past behind.

That was blasphemy in my family. The past was part of what made you whole. Made you who you are today. Helped to make who you would become.

At one point in the day, my grandmother would go over to her son's grave. Alone. She would be there for a long while. Talking. Everyone knew not to go near that graveside while my grandmother was there. It was unbearably sad.

My favorite part of the day was when my grandmother would tell us the story of how she left home and her trip on the "Very Big Boat" that took her from Portugal to America when she was thirteen years old. How she came with just a small bag of clothes and her guitar. How a few of the sailors made "comments" to her and she got so scared she didn't come out of her room for days. How she got sea sick and wretched violently for most of the trip.

And then she would take out her guitar and sing a fado - a mournful, soulful Portuguese folk song about fate and destiny, the sea and the plight of the poor. My grandfather was very proud of her beautiful voice and expert playing - as were we all - even though it was, until recently, against the law in Portugal for a woman to sing fado.

All the grandchildren thought she was so brave and courageous and bold. She was our brave hero with the voice of a very angel.

My grandfather could see the admiration in our eyes, so, not to be outdone, he told stories about being part of the Portuguese Navy at age sixteen, and the storms that would come up at sea, and how he NEVER got sick.

Well, DUH, we thought, he was a man. He wasn't supposed to get sick. And, besides, our grandmother was only thirteen years old. And, a girl. That gave her extra points of admiration, even among my male cousins. Of course, we never said that to his face, but we all thought it and admired our grandmother even more intensely.

Later in the day, we would reenact the stories we had been told. Admittedly, my grandfather's stories made for more dramatic scenes, so we ended up playing roles in the Portuguese Navy during terrible storms.

I would pretend to be my grandmother and get seasick so I had to lay down in the cool of the shade of the trees while I listened to my grandmother sing fado.

There aren't too many "modern" cemeteries with trees anymore. I don't see too many families who linger long there, much less have picnics. Maybe it's just fallen out of fashion. Maybe it's because there aren't any trees or open areas any more.

Last Saturday, I went with some friends to Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Boston. It's the place where Mary Baker Eddy is laid to rest and where they, themselves, have purchased their graves. Ms. Eddy, of course, is the founder of Christian Science.

Like many people in the Greater Boston Area, my friends often go to Mt. Auburn Cemetery to bird watch. In fact, the Audubon Society has 'bird tours' through this beautifully landscaped cemetery which, I understand, are quite informative and thoroughly enjoyable.

There are also tours of the various grave sites of famous people and one tour I took when I was in seminary and would love to take again which explained the meaning of the various styles of tombstones and grave markers.

Beyond white marble crosses, there are veiled urns and angels - some with trumpets, or Madonnas with veiled faces, and open books or bibles. I'm always fascinated by the family plots with wrought iron fences and locked gates.

There is one gravestone at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plains that always takes my breath away every time I see it. It is the carved marble gravestone of a little boy in a boat. The engraving is in French, erected by his mother, Mme. Louis Hellium Mieusset for her fils bien aime (well-beloved son), Louis Ernest Mieusset

The carving on the stone reveals that the boy was only four years old when he drowned in a boating accident one beautiful summer day on a lake nearby. Here's a piece of the fascinating story:
On September 26, 1886, while in a small boat near the shore of a little pond, Louis noticed his pet rabbit running along the bank. Wishing to bring the rabbit with him, he tried to reach for his pet, but lost his balance and fell out of the boat and drowned. It is this last moment of life that Mme. Louis Hellium Mieusset chose to commemorate in her son's last resting place in Forest Hills Cemetery.

Also erected with the monument was a marble bench with a moveable drawer (since removed), where the grieving mother could come to clean the glass, polish its brass fitting, place flowers, and do other duties as she saw fit. Due to financial reverses, Mme. Mieusset's private income ceased, and she went to work as a domestic on Beacon Hill. She lived on Kirkland St. in the South End, becoming increasingly frail but ever attending her son's grave by scrimping and saving.

After breaking a leg, she went to the City facility on Long Island and died of complications from that accident. Having no heirs and not having told the hospital about her grave lot at Forest Hills, Louise Mieusset was buried in a pauper's grave in Potters Field on Long Island. Fortunately, a neighbor, Mrs. Jackson knew Mme. Mieusset's tale and wrote ex-Mayor Curley. Within 24 hours she lay next to her son awaiting eternity.

Perhaps the loveliest element about this tale is that it has no ending. For even after the death of his mother (whose grave is not specifically marked) fresh flowers are left at the site almost daily, anonymously. Even stakeouts at the site have never revealed whom it is that keeps the site so dutifully.
Grief is a powerful human emotion, fueled as it is by love and memories. One can become as frozen in it as the stones which mark the graves. Or, one can live into it, keeping the love and the memories alive.

I find myself feeling a bit sad, today, that I live so far away from where my relatives are buried I can't go and visit their graves on this Memorial Day.  I have my memories, though - some of people who died even before I was born.

My faith informs me that we will all be together, one day, in "that great by-and-by".

Until that day, I live this day cherishing the treasures of the stories of the people - mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts and cousins, heroes and scoundrels, veterans of wars and objectors of conscience - who gave shape and form to who I am and what I am yet to become.

They live on in my heart, which, I think, is the best monument anyone could ever have.


Cissy Taylor said...

Oh, Elizabeth, what beautiful memories and stories. I like to think, with all the humility I can muster, that I helped prompt you to write this today. xoxo

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Cissy - never doubt the influence you have on people. Look what you've inspired in me today.

Malcolm+ said...

I'm left wondering if your family ever did manage to connect with your cousin.

I'm also reminded of the story of an English couple (well, actually, he was Welsh and his wife was French, but they lived in Cornwall) who discovered the overgrown graves of three crew members from HMCS Regina, as well as some other Commonwealth war graves - and one Norwegian airman. Having written to the Queen (who referred the letter to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and not waiting for an answer, the two of them drove 70 miles each weekend to look after the graves themselves. When the War Graves Commission offered to compensate them, they refused.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Malcolm - Near as I can figure, they never did. I hope I'm wrong and some have.

Great story about that English couple. I'd be inclined to do the same thing.

Anonymous said...

May I raise a virtual toast to your ancestors? What would be an appropriate refreshment - any particular favorites? :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm drinking Bombay Sapphire and Tonic with lime these days. I'll raise my favorite summer drink to your ancestors as well, Tracie.