Note: This is quite literally the very first "story" I ever wrote. I wrote it years before I ever actually sat down to intentionally write anything and I did it because during the entire time that the events in this story were unfolding I knew something terribly special was taking place and I knew I had to find a way to make sure it was always remembered. As a writer it is often difficult to go back and look at something that was created in the very beginning, before you'd figured out how to make things work the right way and figured out how to pace and do dialogue and all the other things writers take so seriously. It's hard not to go in and just wholesale rip the thing to pieces and start from scratch. That impulse is forever there. Looking over this with fresh eyes for the first time in a long time I worked hard to resist that urge because sometimes a story stands on its own two legs and, really, it doesn't take a whole lot of "craft" to make it sing. So here you go. An imperfect rendering of a perfect story. But, much like children, something that is loved and treasured no matter the scrapes and bruises and not-so-right bits. Cheers. JP
We had been planning this trip for a couple of months. Me and my mom going to New York to visit our cousin Gregg. New York with its smell of garbage and cooking meat and the exhaust from passing busses. I love leaning out over the curb to look uptown at the endless concrete tunnels formed from all those towers standing shoulder to shoulder. All that horizontal made from all that vertical. Mom and I try to make it to New York at least once a year, twice if we have the money. We had planned this as a typical trip to the city to eat and drink and walk the streets. We never imagined that it would also encompass a trip to an unmarked grave at a cemetery on Long Island.
My mother’s mother was from New York and had lived in Brooklyn until she met a sailor at a U.S.O. dance during the war, got married and moved south to Virginia. She had three brothers and one sister. The sister, Dottie, was our Cousin Gregg’s mother. Dottie had similarly left New York as a young woman in the forties and had moved first to New Jersey and then to Florida to raise her family. Their brothers had made escapes earlier, during the war. New York City on its own is an electric place to visit but even more so for us. When we walk the streets, especially with Gregg who knows more family history than the rest of us, we are walking the streets that our people walked. We are time-travelers. Gregg easily points to the brownstones where our aunts and uncles lived, the high rise where my grandmother took dance lessons, the church where the wife of our New York State Supreme Court Justice uncle made a spectacle of herself in a bawdy red dress during the 1920s while he was giving a speech to the congregation because she suspected him of philandering. Another uncle who was a singer with the Metropolitan Opera died suddenly on that great stage. My great great great grandfather was the first Metropolitan Chief of Police for New York City. For people who have never actually lived in Manhattan ourselves, we claim great ownership to its streets and its stories.
By anyone’s measure my great-grandmother’s story is one of the saddest that city of sad stories has ever witnessed. Filmed as a grand spectacle and adapted for both stage and screen the greatest stars of the era would have fought for the roles. Careers would be made for the writers and directors and producers of such a drama. How can one life’s story be so compelling? Variety would ask its readers as ballots would be sent to members of the Academy. On Oscar night when the cast and crew would bound their way to the stage in jubilant embrace the world would finally understand what had happened those many years ago. The world would bare witness to the manifest suffering of one so pious: my great-grandmother. Of course, none of that would ever really happen. Because like most of the grand suffering that exists in the world my great-grandmother’s story would go untold for years and years and years. Only her children would know and then one day her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Such is the nature of suffering. It is often a quiet and lonely place.
The word “great-grandmother” typically connotes a grand remove but in our family where we refer to the dead as much as we do the living it is really a much closer relationship than the word would imply. It is my mother’s grandmother. The same relation that my daughter has to my mother. For my mother, it is her mother’s mother. Put in those terms you get a better idea of the tightness of the ties that bind us together. In our family, mother’s rule, and the idea of your mother’s mother is sacrosanct.
My great-grandmother, Ethel Walling, came from a very moneyed, very Catholic family in New York. She was in her early thirties and was training to be a nun. Quiet. Simple. Loving. She had not yet taken her final vows and was working as a nursing sister at St. Luke’s hospital in the late 1910s when she met John Maxwell Richardson. Considerably older than her, he had already lost a wife and children to the influenza epidemic. He was from South Carolina and was a scoundrel by anyone’s definition. He swept her off her feet. It was a whirlwind courtship. She left the convent and they started a family. Displeased with her decision to marry this man her people disowned her. Without her family’s money and resources she was wholly dependent on him for her existence. They had five children, three boys and two girls. And then it all went to hell.
The children never called John Maxwell Richardson “father” or “daddy.” They called him Major. He had been a major in the military and the one picture I have ever seen of him hangs on my mother’s wall. It is a picture of him in full military uniform around the turn of the 20th century. He stands with his legs slightly apart and points a pistol into the air. He is small and compact. He wears glasses. He is handsome. He has a satisfied look on his face. If all you knew of the man were this picture, it would not be hard to guess that he was an asshole.
In pretty short order, after their children were born, Major abandoned them all. He would occasionally send money for food or rent but as this was the height of the depression Ethel was forced to return to work as a nurse to try to make whatever money she could to feed and clothe her children. Left alone for long stretches while she was at work social services was often called. At the time there was little sympathy for a working woman. Still. Ethel worked and Ethel fought and Ethel kept her children together. It was a poor life and a hard life but it was a life filled with brothers and sisters and love. Absent Major, of course. The stories of his parental failures are multitude. An example: once he sent David, the oldest child on an errand. He was to deliver money to a woman in Harlem. When David got there he realized the woman was Major’s “wife” and that they had several children of their own. David had never known this. One can only guess at what possible reason Major would have to send a child on such an errand. To have to deliver money to your father’s mistress when your own family was in desperate need of it. Easy proof that some people are simply mean.
The winter of 1942 Ethel’s five children were scattered like this: the oldest boys off in the war, the youngest boy in Georgia with Major and the two girls in Brooklyn with their mother. The oldest girl, Margie, was my grandmother. She was fourteen. The youngest girl, Dottie, was twelve. My grandmother had been attending St. Anne’s, a Catholic boarding school out of the city. Dottie had also been attending St. Anne’s. A perpetual momma’s girl who couldn’t bear to be separated from her devoted mother, Dottie repeatedly ran away and back to Brooklyn. She was subsequently asked not to return to school. It was in their Brooklyn apartment during the Christmas holiday of 1942 that Ethel became sick. She lay in bed, coughing and in obvious pain. Home for Christmas break, Margie and Dottie nursed their mother for three days until they finally became frightened and called a family friend who was a physician. Hearing her symptoms he ordered them to call an ambulance right away. Ethel was taken to the hospital. The girls stayed alone in the apartment for several days. On Christmas Eve, 1942, Ethel Walling died of pneumonia. She was fifty years old.
Ethel’s brother Franklin remained close with his sister though the rest of the family had long ago disowned her. He took the children with him. He didn’t, however, take the family dog, which was left in the apartment for days and subsequently destroyed most everything in it. Home for what was supposed to be Christmas with their mother, Dottie and Margie instead attended their mother’s funeral. She was buried on December 28, 1942. For Dottie and Margie, who were children, the event was a blur of sadness and confusion. They were taken back to the apartment which had been destroyed by their poor little dog and allowed to gather just a few things as they would now be living with their Uncle Franklin and his wife Catherine. One of Dottie’s best-loved possessions was a little stuffed dog that her mother had given her as a small child. She was not allowed to bring it with her. It was thrown out, cruel Aunt Catherine having stated that proper young ladies don’t play with such things.
Such was the state of the life they were now to lead. One of harsh realities and little compassion. One of isolation from each other and the difficulties of being an outsider in another person’s home. Hard lessons at any age, doubly hard in the wake of the death of your mother. Two little girls cast to the wind with nothing left to bind them but their memories of their mother and each other. In all of the distress and confusion of their mother’s death and its aftermath it was never noted by any of her children where their mother was buried. All that was known was that it was a bitterly cold day and they had to drive far to get there.
My grandmother Margie died in 1976 at the age of 47. She died at an age where her children weren’t quite old enough to grasp what exactly their mother had been through as a young girl. She never talked about it. It was a private pain. All they knew was that every Christmas Eve Margie was sad and would call her sister Dottie on the phone. The Christmas tree was usually tossed out Christmas day. My aunt Dottie passed away in 2005 at the age of 74. Throughout her life it was a firmly expressed wish that she find her mother’s resting place. Unlike my grandmother, she had lived long enough to share these stories with her children and nieces. It was Dottie who began the search.
For years she had tried to access the proper records which would point to where Ethel was buried. They had had no luck with obtaining a death certificate. Similarly, they were thwarted from learning where her Brooklyn diocese typically buried its parishioners. A week before our regularly scheduled trip to New York to visit Gregg I got an email from my Mom. It was a forwarded message from her sister, my Aunt Mary. This is what it said:
I will send you a copy of Ethel's death certificate that I just got today. She had chronic myocarditis and bronchopneumonia and died in Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. She was buried in St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, NY on Dec. 28, 1942. I don't know how close to NYC or Brooklyn that is. Most of the rest of the information is basic. Just thought you'd like to know. Talk to you later.
And that was it. That was everything. Less than a week before we were supposed to go to New York we had the answer to the world. My aunt Mary had gotten a free two week trial to ancestry.com and that was it. After 65 years of being lost, Ethel was now found. I called my mother from the pasta aisle in the Food Lion where I had been picking up supper for my own family and asked if she’d seen the message. Similarly amazed we realized we now had something else to do on our trip to New York.
I had never really ridden in a car on my trips to New York, other than taxis, which have their own death-defying/life-affirming charm. It was something different entirely when Mom and I met Gregg at the parking garage on west 42nd street. The place was enormous and how people actually maneuvered their cars into the spaces was a mystery to me. My mom got into the front seat, next to Gregg, and I squished into the back. I knew that for the cost of a parking space like this in mid-town Manhattan you could get a really nice three bedroom house with a fenced in backyard at home. New York City. The size and ridiculousness of all of it never stops taking my breath away. All of us inside after multiple yoga-like contortions and inhalations of breath we buckled up and Gregg plugged in his iPod. A fantastic mix of Billie Holiday, Maroon5 and Tears for Fears. Our destination: a cemetery in Long Island. We made our way out of the parking garage and onto 42nd street. The traffic was hideous. Cars and trucks and vans scraped by perilously close and at race track speeds. Horns honked, brakes were slammed, tires squealed. I was terrified. My knuckles white as they gripped the little handle that hangs over the door. Gregg had fantastic command of the situation and before long we were on the Long Island Expressway and on our way to Farmingdale New York.
Farmingdale’s name was easy to understand as St. Charles Cemetery was a vast expanse of flatness that had very obviously been farmland once. Acres and acres of flat. I have never been in a cemetery that rivals it in space and scope. Even being from Virginia where we have our share of epic cemeteries, whole cities named for Civil War battles and the dead that they left behind, all are dwarfed by the scale of St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale New York. This is the cemetery where members of the three Catholic diocese of Brooklyn New York are buried. It was obvious there are a lot of Catholics in Brooklyn. We stopped at the welcome center in the cemetery where Gregg asked a woman about finding a grave. The woman recognized Gregg and our task from his previous phone call which surprised us. This was the busiest cemetery any of us had ever been to, a hive of activity and people performing multiple tasks. They came and went from all directions, at least three funerals we could see taking place at that very moment. She went to the back room and returned with a little blue index card with some words typed on it. The corners were tattered and bent. It appeared very old. It was the grave registration card for Ethel Walling. It stated that the owner of the grave was Franklin Walling, her brother. It had been him who had purchased her plot all those years ago. She pulled out a little map and circled section 9. She stated that Ethel was buried in section 9, row L, plot 263. She wrote down the name of the person buried next to her as a means of finding our way because Ethel’s plot was unmarked. With little hope in her voice and a sympathetic smile, she wished us luck.
As we left the small Welcome House we braced ourselves for a long afternoon. As far as the eye could see were tall granite grave markers, shoulder to shoulder, no room between them. Some were literally touching each other they were so tightly packed in. I tried taking pictures of the scene so I could convey the scale to people at home and it was impossible. No picture I took could capture the immensity of it. The endlessness. The forever. Eventually I gave up. There were at least two-hundred different sections in this cemetery. We were looking for section 9. In section 9 there were no stand-up tombstones just flat granite markers. The one we were looking for didn’t even have that. No marker. So we were looking for the flat granite marker next to an empty space. The empty space being our goal. Section 9 started with row “A” and continued into the triple letters. We were looking for row “L.” Gregg maneuvered the car a little ways into the cemetery. The roads snaked all around and very quickly I had lost track of where the woman had told us to go. I was happy I wasn’t the one driving as I really had no clue. Gregg made a couple of turns without any apparent trouble, and there were were: Section 9. He drove along the edge of this section and as a group decided that we should just go ahead and get out and see what we could come up with. Everything was flatness and cold. There were a handful of outstanding oak trees scattered about. No upright stones. Here all the markers lay on top of the ground. As Gregg pulled to a stop I got out of the car first. Mom and Gregg were still adjusting their coats and closing the doors when I walked down the row next to where we had just parked. I passed a few markers and doing the math in my head realized that I was on row L. “Huh,” I thought. I walked down a few more and understood I was in the 260s. “You’re kidding me…” I was now speaking to myself, but out loud. I stopped, looked at the ground in front of me and looked at the marker beside it. “I found it.” I never looked up as I called out to Mom and Gregg who had never advanced past the car. They stood motionless, still in the act of buttoning up their coats just looking at me. We had steeled ourselves for a lengthy search. This was to be an all day thing. They were still putting on their scarves and maneuvering them into the fashionable knots of the proper New Yorker. But it was true. We had found it. We were there. I had walked right to it, actually, having been pushed, maybe pulled. Gregg put the car where it needed to be, I got out, walked down one row and only one row, and I stopped right where I needed to stop. I was in section 9, on row L, at plot 263. I was standing at the grave of my great-grandmother. A grave that was unmarked and had not been visited for 65 years. A grave that had been searched for for decades. This was the place where 65 years before two young girls stood in devastation wearing their best dresses and wool coats and watched as their mother was lowered into the ground. This, when they should have been fawning over new Christmas things.
It was not hard to imagine what it looked like then. March is still winter on Long Island and everything was brown and dry. The handful of trees was old enough that they would have been there when that sad funeral had taken place. It was windswept. It was lonely. It was gray. It was a picture of pain and loneliness that typically can only exist in your head but on that day, in that place, it became a living and breathing thing. There are few times in life where you can stand in a place and know for absolutely certain that others that you have known have stood there in similar circumstances. This was one of those times. I did not know Ethel. But I knew Dottie. I knew her and I loved her. And though I was younger than my own youngest child when my grandmother died, I certainly know her. I know her through my mother and her sisters and through the looks on their faces when they talk about her. That love for a mother that only gets larger with time. My Mom and I and Gregg were all at a funeral. And we knew it.
We are an industrious people. So we got to work. Around the corner from the cemetery was a Home Depot. As we drove out of that large and lonely place I sat in the back seat and thought of my grandmother. I imagined her in the back of a big old car with her little sister Dottie sitting next to her. What were they thinking? Were they holdings hands? How stunned they must have been. Did they know what was coming next? Of course, I knew what was coming next and a lot of it was not pleasant. I felt guilty that those little girls drove out of that place not knowing their fate while from the safety of the future I did. I knew the ending. It was their story, not mine.
We drove out of the cemetery to the Home Depot next door. We set out on the task of making Ethel’s place look beautiful. When in mourning, even for someone you never really knew, it is always helpful to have a task and our task was flowers and grass seed. We bought three sets of hyacinth bulbs, a pink, a white and a purple, and a blue hydrangea, my grandmother’s favorite, the official flower of the women of our family. We bought a small bag of grass seed and a trowel and a small rake. Back at the cemetery we took turns keeping watch for the cemetery landscaping crew because we felt certain that what we were doing was against a lot of rules. On our hands and knees we planted the hyacinths in a circle around the hydrangea. We roughed up the dirt all around and liberally scattered the grass seed. At the last minute we remembered the real reason we had come. Gregg went back to his car. He returned with a sealed 8x10 plastic sheet inside of which were pictures. They were the pictures of David and George and Danny and Margie and Dottie. All in black and white and all when they were young and beautiful and alive. We poked a whole through the corner of the plastic and staked the pictures into the ground. We returned the children to their mother. That saintly, long-mourned woman who had rested in anonymity for 65 years. We had found her, we had planted flowers, we had celebrated her and now we will get a marker with her name on it so we will always know where she is.