Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Bones of the Dead Beneath Us

I walked on old hallowed ground, though new to me, along the run of the Susquehanna River. From the start it was easy to see the ruination caused by the many floods that have plagued us here, but it also rings right that nature should retake that which she nourished. It is right that everything from the earth should return to the earth- not in a sealed box in the ground, separated from the soil. But perhaps that was true before there were so many of us trying to decay at once.

There was a particular statue that drew to this cemetery; a large winged angel that stands guardian along the road. Many of the tombstones were old, dating before this century. I would say that most of them spanned the turning of the century, with a small minority at one end that passed the Korean War. The trees ripple gold in the wind, their leaves chasing each other across limbs and into an autumnal freefall.

I found a moss-eaten stone for Catherine A. McLaughlin, wife of Michael J. McMahon, who lived 1882-1906. It’s the first tombstone of that time I’ve seen that listed a wife’s maiden name, which has proved barriers to many a genealogy hunter. And considering her age and the time of her death, it warms my heart. I like to imagine she was loved and that she mattered to her husband and her family.

There were many familial groupings like trees, with a central obelisk with one or two names surrounded by their children and grandchildren in circles or squares and then, as if there was a mass migration out of the area, one or two modern stones but no more.

So many tiny stones with sleeping sheep on them litter this graveyard in particular, for children who died. So very many. And I think of my niece Victoria, who I never had a chance to meet. Who died a week away from her birth. I remember the photos of her post-delivery and how I was just waiting for her to open her eyes and wake up. She didn’t look dead. But she was. And I think about my brother, my heart, who had to endure a loss that no one should have to. I see her haunting his eyes still. And around me, there are so many sleeping sheep.
            Our Little Joseph. We miss him.
            Helen Masser, 1909-1910.
            Natalino Giovannini, Dec 26, 1909 – Jan 8, 1910.
            Francesca Testane, Morto 1909, 19 months.
            Leos Bills. Mat Bills.
            Stephen, infant son, died 1912.

In the wake of such a sobering moment, a thriving patch of bright yellow flowers caught my eye. Mary Hopkins, died May 13, 1913. Almost a century ago. Yet the sight of those flowers lit a hope in me that someone came to honor her. Someone else planted those flowers, and maybe comes still and speaks the name of Mary Hopkins, strokes the grass above her, and offers a little light in the darkness of her loss. Maybe some other descendent looking for roots.
Another Mary’s modest stone lies lodged beneath a twisting tree being while ---e Quilligan has been sucked down into the dirt gone soft from the flooding waters. As did Bridget --- who died February 16---.

Mostly what I saw among the fallen leaves and green grasses, were monuments lying in pieces, carefully laid, where they could be, by cemetery caretakers during clean up, tucking small crosses into spire niches; in other places the pieces of rubble were stacked carefully over the plot. The ground buckled often beneath me. Gravestones teetered and tottered down zigzagging rows. From the road, driving past every day, the rows look pin-perfect. Poor Peter O’ Donnelly and James Roche, both died in 1865, both laid to rest in the same space, and both suffered stones upturned from their pedestals. With so much buckling above ground, what is the state of the graves below?

Then I came upon Philip Sullivan, died 1893, and Mary, his wife, who died in 1906. Mary who died after him and still died without more of a name. I repeated “Mary, his wife” over and over, reaching out to her spirit with the words. I want her to have a moment, somewhere in the past, somewhere when she was alive. I want her to hear her name and know somewhere in her secret inside wisdom that a daughter of Margaret, of Patricia, of Margaret is standing at her tomb, speaking her name aloud and knowing that somewhere in the web of life, she mattered.

And then I stumbled, and almost stepped upon, The Regan Stone, 1822-1934. This being of unknown gender flourished in a time of hardship. The man or woman saw the Civil War, the mass production of automobiles, and World War I, dying during our country’s depression. To have lived that long and leave only a simple marker… And I think of all those who have died who have not had family to put them to rest or whose bodies have not been found to be put to rest and I think that in such a time of financial crisis, perhaps Regan was luckier than his/her peers to be honored with a stone at all.

The ground was littered with small white mushrooms and, in the center of the cemetery, the ground actually pitched and cratered beneath my feet. The safe path brought me to Edward Hanefin, born 1856, his wife Mary Elizabeth 1865-1913, his daughters, Elizabeth 1890-1891 and then Marie 1892-1920. But there must have been no left to remember to engrave his date of death. Or he died away from here and unknown. Or… I will never know. But I saw his name and that he was born. And he lived in the world and added to it. Edward Hanefin, I remember you.

Walter Paul Bowen, Architect, 1902-1980. It was a modest, proud and accomplished marker. Smaller, older tombstones sat strewn along the river edge, worn and faded and covered in lichen and moss. There were old sections of Italian names and Greek names, foreign words etched on stone. The Irish monopolized the far end of the plots.

Nellie N. Hodgson, 1883-1930, and baby. That pulled me to the mirror world along the river, needing a moment. I felt so much grief in the carving of that truth. Twisting trees dipped down to meet themselves in reflection, showing the spirits doorways to cross over. Beside it, I found a section of stones fitted with porcelain oval photos of the deceased. Some were missing, some were damaged. I am familiar with this practice and I can’t help but think that’s what I want… a room with images of those who have passed on. A room of memories smiling at me out of life. I was warmed by the faces defining names.
            Miroslav Skiruvan, 1925-1930, spi sladce nas synui.
            Hedvika Nemgansky, 1920-1928, odpocivejv pokoji.
            Michael Pecha, 1879-1933, Paulina Pecha 1879-1932, nech odpocivaju v pokoji.
            PFC Alex F. Kuracina, WW2, KIA, 1912-1944.

It was the first time I have ever experienced the sensation that my feet walked over the bones of the deceased. It was also the closest I have ever been inside a cemetery so near Samhain since I have come into myself. I move quickly through the disconcerting sensations into a power grid of energy I am touching as I walk gently and quietly across the strange and spongy grass, watching for sinkholes.

There is one stone that won me in that space. One marker that made me long to know the woman it was erected for. There were various statues of Mary all over, overshadowed only by sculptural crosses: In Ever Loving Memory of Bridget McTague, born in Ireland, died in Binghamton, NY, October 13, 1955, erected by her loving children. Bridget’s stone had beautiful and engraved scrollwork with a niche cut out of the top. In the niche was Mary, the blessed Goddess, but in transformation. Her face, unblemished, unmarred, was sculpted into some semblance of cat or rabbit. And my gut felt that woman must have been a nurturer, must have been a wonder. And sixty years later, walking the resting place of the dead on a quiet afternoon, I touch that echo of her left behind.

Where are the bones of your ancestors in the physical world? What are their geographic locations? Mine have been turning to dust and ash in England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York state… that I am aware of. After so many centuries there must be more, scattered across the worlds.

As each generation takes breath from the air, another generation decays and returns to the earth. As each body burns in fire, the tears of grief flow, nourishing the decay flourishing in the earth, and another generation is born to take breath from the air. Life is a cycle that will continue.

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