Thursday, May 25, 2006

Rolling the Rock

Burial Memorials. Gravestones. Tombstones. Cemetary Markers. Headstones. Whatever you call them, they can be powerful symbols.

My mom was orphaned at 6 weeks. Her parents and two of her brothers were all dead within days of eachother -- it was the 1918 flu epidemic that took them. My grandmother had brought her brother over from Poland. On her death bed he promised her that he would care for my mother, the infant Frances. The moment she died, he dropped my Mom off with distant cousins, never to return or to in any way contribute to her well-being. He went off to a large city, ended up owning 13 drug stores and living in a mansion with his children who wanted for nothing. My mother was working at age 10.

He did do one thing, however. He erected a grave stone for his sister, her husband and their children. It had all their names and dates and the galling inscription: "This stone is provided through the generosity of (his name)".

Every time my Mom went to the grave she would wince at that phrase. She even tried growing plants there that would obscure it, but that never worked. Her son was buried there as well, my brother. But she never had the heart to have his name put on "that awful stone". We were not a well-off family at all. Replacing that monument in my growing-up years was out of the question. Later, it just became the family albatross.

When Mom passed, Dad and I knew that we had to get her a better stone. The cemetary said that although we had a big plot, the policy was one monument/plot. It took no time at all to decide that we would replace the old stone. We tried to give it away -- we asked churches if they had needy people who might need a stone (it being cheaper to just shave off one set of letters than to buy a whole stone) -- we asked art schools if they needed a piece of marble -- no one wanted it. So we had it turned into rubble. Nothing larger than a pea. That would have caused my mother to sing in rejoicing. My father insisted on being there and watching when they did it.

11 years ago we had a lovely and very artistic stone designed with Mom's family on one side and our family on the other. We had my brother's name added next to hers.

Last week I went to the stonecutters and had Dad's name added, as he had arranged in advance with the stonecutter.

There is comfort to be had in these rituals, in this memorializing -- in creating new symbols from past injustice. I know my family is not "there" in the cemetary. But I know that the stone marker chosen with such dedication by Dad and me is a fitting memorial to the best part of what my family was. And, in truth, I like the sassiness of the fact that it exists at all. And I am sure Mom does, too.


Blogger Songbird said...

Mata H, how awful and wonderful your story is. This is one of those situations where the marker mattered very much. Bless you and your dad for doing this.

10:16 AM  

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