Wednesday, June 30, 2010

To Remember & Honor

This New York Times article reports on the efforts of the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project. Over the last six years, the group has provided nineteen headstones for Negro League players with unmarked graves.


When my father died in 1988, he was buried in the same plot with his parents and two brothers, one of whom had died in infancy. Seeing the headstone was painful for me because it was inscribed simply with our family surname and my grandfather’s full name. It frustrated and even angered me that there were no other names and no dates at all, to acknowledge and remember who was buried there.

From a genealogical perspective, the lack of information on the stone was also hard to accept. Many times Chuck and I have gone to a cemetery and been able to add more information to the family tree and even detail to family stories. But it was through my genealogical research, my imagination and my poetry that I was finally able to make peace with my Dad’s headstone and his father’s decision, made nearly a century before.

In Rhode Island, 1910

He was a young man
younger than I am now
Married to a woman
who was not warm and funny
which in courtship
somehow suited him
and suited her
He knew her past
and she his
But back then
self help
was an odd grammatical construction
for what one did to live a life
not what one was told to do
to live it well

So when their first child
a son –
the special pride and blessing
of any man
to have his first born be a son –
when that child died
a babe in arms
a piece of him died too
A piece of her as well
But as the man
he had the job
of going to the bank
and riding to the churchyard
and picking out a plot
and then a stone

He was not a man of means
though he had hope
He chose a smooth flat marker
the color of lead
the weight of his heart
one to lie firmly in the ground
It was all he could afford
but it was sensible as well

And what to put upon the stone?
He stood there
looking at the slab of granite
polished high
with flowers swirling in the corners
in the center
the Sacred Heart strangled with thorns
thorns he felt in his heart
Saw the stone was bigger
than his son had been
thought about how the plot
was fit for four
and of his grieving bride at home
wondered if the next child -
for surely there would be another –
would survive
and said, no dates
just “SMITH - John L. Smith Family” *
and wondering too
how swiftly would the plot be filled
he headed home
to a house thick with mourners
and muffled tears

- LMR/Pink Granite

*Name edited


Sue said...

What a beautiful poem, Lee!! I am very impressed!! Very moving and I can just imagine the pain felt in going through this.

My mom's paternal family lived in a small town in Scotland. My grandmother was English and she married my Scottish grandfather during the war. They moved to Scotland and my gran fell pregnant soon after. She always said never to have a baby in Scotland. Her baby, a little girl named Jenny, was born and died shortly after (I think the same day). She was buried in the town's old cemetry without so much as a flower, let alone a headstone.

I've only managed to find my Aunt Jenny's grave by knowing that my great grandparents are buried in the unmarked plot alongside hers. It's the only unmarked double plot in the cemetry. I've been twice and I find it so totally overwhelming that my family is there without recognition...

Sue X

Pink Granite said...

Hi Sue -
Thank you for your generous words.

I can understand your pain at having part of your family in an unmarked grave. It's good that you know the correct location of where they are buried. I wonder if a family stone could be placed there, even all these years later? Something simple could bring comfort to you and generations to come.
- Lee

Sue said...

Very true! Just been past with my mom, to show her your poem and we might just do this. My mom might be going over later this year and said this is something she's always felt she'd like to do, so we might just all club together and put up some kind of a small reminder...

Sue X