I took my 8 y/o daughter recently to visit the grave of my grandmother and grandfather. They're buried in a little cemetery in Batavia, IL called Resurrection. My daughter said it was too bad that we didn't bring flowers and I agreed. I'm not much of a cemetery visitor myself, but there is something about flowers.
We agreed to bring flowers next time.
It took us about 20 minutes to find the headstones, which was comedic in itself. I was sort of embarrassed that I didn't know where the markers were. I mean, I really did spend a lot of time with "Gramma" when she was alive. I haven't visited her grave since the day she was buried, 9 years ago.
As I lined up an 8 y/0 child with me into a search party for two rocks in the ground with names Donald andJane, I thought that it's probably a lucky break for me that I am an atheist. I figured that if I believed that I'd be facing the spirits of the dead in an afterlife, they would chew my ass out for never visiting their tombs or at least bringing flowers when I did finally swing by. Not to mention spending my remaining living years stewing over the guilt for my misdeeds.
As it was, I just passed the time watching my daughter pick up shiny things as an offering for the graves of her ancestors. I wondered if I was a poor example of how to respect ones ancestors, but that was just my old Catholic guilt training flaring up like some scar from a childhood trauma. In reality, the way to respect my ancestors is to live a life of dignity and honesty; to live a life worth living. That's what they did and that's the only thing Gramma would want me to do, if she were here. It's all she ever wanted for me.
We found the markers. My daughter found them, of course. I walked over and we gazed up the remembrances of those gone before us, father and daughter. In addition to his birth and death dates and name, Donald's stone listed his accomplishments:
WWII, KOREA, 82ND AIRBORNE, SFC, PURPLE HEART, BRONZE STAR.
Jane's stone said less:
Wife? Wife? That's it? What an insult. I was stunned. As we looked on, my daughter captured the essence of this label perfectly:
I looked around for comparison to see a demonstration of the travesty before me. Unfortunately, this seemed to be the norm as the theme for choosing an epitaph for a woman seemed to be "What is the least we can possibly say?" The result looks like a low bidding war of using the least syllables. Sort of like the last move in a Scrabble game, when you don't even have a full tray of letters. Or a funeral home game show called Name That Woman: "I can name that woman in one word."
Wife. Mother. Sister.
I wondered what stopped the trend from going even lower on the value scale. Maybe it has and there are women's graves out there with declarations of even lower value:
Her. Cook. It.
Maybe it was nothing more than an indictment of my mother's strained relationship with her own mother. Whatever. I was pissed. My daughter and I stayed a while longer and then I took her for a drive around Batavia. I showed her my grandmother's old house, her church, her charities. I told her of holidays and summer days that lasted forever. I showed my daughter a house that Mary Todd Lincoln had lived in near my grandmother's house.
"Cool! Did you meet her, daddy?" My daughter asked me.
Which is the exact same question I asked my grandmother when she showed me that house! Gramma didn't think it was nearly as funny a question as my guffaws indicated to my daughter's inquiry.
I told her my grandmother's life story, as I know it.
Born, in 1916 in NYC as Rita Mae Krueger. Her birth certificate was issued from an adoption hospital, where women would deliver a child that they would give up for adoption. Rita was adopted by a family in Elgin, IL who already had a son of their own, Sylvester. The changed Rita's name to Jane. They also adopted another little girl and named her, Helen.
Helen became very ill so she was returned to the orphanage and a new girl brought home. She too was renamed Helen. My grandmother confided to me that this event made her dreadfully afraid to become ill, for she was afraid that she would be returned to die alone. These three children remained close for the rest of their lives, with my grandmother and her brother living on for years after Helen.
Her teen years and young adult years are not known to me. It has been suggested that my grandmother too had a child out of wedlock which she gave up for adoption. My grandmother married before WWII to a man named Emanuel and she bore two girls with him.
Grandmother knew how to work the system. She was vigorously active in the Democratic Party and civic organizations. She had a strong sense of community contribution and the duties of citizenship. In addition to earning the money to raise her daughters, named Jane and Rita (go figure), she contributed time and effort to her church; community organizations; Democratic Party operations, GOTV drives & registration. She joined The Loyal Order Of Moose, whose signature charitable operation is fundingMooseheart - The Child City, a home for orphans. (go figure...again).
After her daughters were raised and gone, she remarried to Don. She found in him true happiness. Their wedding was in Hawaii and they bought a house in Batavia to live out their days and cash in on the good life promised to those that made so many sacrifices during WWII. I remember every visit to their house as a time of laughter, smiles and joy. Christmas eve seated around a shiny silver christmas tree made of wire and plastic with a lamp on the floor shining red, blue, green and yellow light on the tree. Summer days in the backyard swimming pool. Ice cream sundaes in little plastic cups in the freezer. Friday night fish-fry at the VFW.
She was a busy-body. She always had little lists of things to do and memo pads by the phone with a pencil. Her refrigerator had little lists posted on there and she was always working off of some list.
When I was 8, Don went to the hospital for chest pains. They gave him some medicine and released him. He called his wife to come pick him up and while she was driving to him, a blood clot slipped into his heart and he died. That's when we put the first rock in the ground at Resurrection Cemetery.
Grandma lived another 30 years after that. She was always busy. She never married again. She didn't want to lose her military health benefits. She did meet a man and they lived together for a few years. But, she couldn't bring herself to let go of the benefits she had. She was the queen of working the system. Not milking it - she contributed plenty. More than many others. But, if a promise was made to her, she was going to make sure that it is kept. The greatest generation was promised much for their sacrifice during WWII and Jane O'Flaherty was going to make sure that the promise was delivered.
Until retirement, she worked in state institutions for troubled children and teens. She was there for those that no one was there for.
She kept her Catholic faith, but like many - she made the personal decisions regarding her own life by the terms of what is best for her and not what is best for the Pope. She was an active member of her church,Holy Cross. However, she was not secretive about her opinions - especially when they differed from the Vatican or the Pastor. Her brother had joined the priesthood as an adult and for years, she assisted his parishes in addition to her own. They shared a close bond of friendship, sibling kinship and shared values. He was with her for all but the last 5 years of her life.
I told all of this to my daughter, remembering all the love I received from that woman. My daughter said to me while I pointed out the Chevy dealer my grandmother kept afloat by purchasing a new dark blue Caprice every 3 years. The little voice in the back seat said:
"Daddy, great-grandma was really committed. Wasn't she?"
Those words were a greater respect for the dead than any floral arrangement or carved monument. The knowledge this little girl has of the goodness from her ancestor and the ownership of that as a part of who she is - priceless.
In reality, the memories of the dead can never do justice to their lives. No monument or story or reverence can replace or recreate the impact of anyone. It is simply not possible. What we can do, is to do what they did - live, and do so with every ounce of care and commitment that we can generate. The greater the legacy we might wish to honor, the greater the commitment we share with those that live with us now.
Thinking about what words my grandmother's stone would have, if she were to choose them, I suspect it might look like one of her little lists:
work the system.
do your part.
say your prayers.