Epitaphs: Part II

Less Is More

Sometimes, the stories that headstones tell you are long and often full of Biblical references.  Some I’ve seen are brief and to the point: “We Will Meet Again in Jesus”.  Once in a great while, one runs across an epitaph that is pithy and wholly understated.  The photo below is such an example.

It doesn’t leave much to reflect upon in terms of God or the future.  Here was a man.  He was three things.  Without question, he was a man of more than three roles, but this is all the family chooses to tell you.  The rest is up to you.  If you knew the gentleman, maybe you could add something.  But for those of us who never met or even heard of this soul, this is all we can look upon.

Gentlemen, turn your collar to the wind and lower your fedora.  Ladies, open your parasols and hold tight to them.  In Epitaphs: Part III, I will present you with the ultimate engraving that contains, in essence, an entire philosophy of life.  It is reputed to be one of the longest epitaphs in America. And it stands on a hill, in a beautiful cemetery, that looks down upon the town where I grew up.

Until next time…..


Boy, You’ve Got To Carry That Weight

It’s been said that the human soul weighs 21 grams.

A gram is equal to the weight of a standard paper clip.  So, if you hold 21 paper clips in the palm of your hand, you’re hold what amounts to the heft of an eternal soul…a soul that will spend all of time in eternal bliss or never-ending torment.  21 paper clips!  That’s a pretty small amount for such a precarious an item as a human soul.

I’ve been doing some thinking about this and my musings has led me to astonishing places.  I own an iPhone and I’ve been hard at work calculating the weight (really it’s called ‘mass’, but I’ll stick with ‘weight’) of email.  My phone, like everyone else’s, receives a ton of text messages, voice mail, email and photos, among other things.  Most of this comes to me from those people I care about, but, alas, some comes unsolicited, i.e., junk mail.  I really don’t want to know about a bargain condominium in Boca Raton or a relaxing get-away weekend flight to Thule, Greenland.  This avalanche of data begins to make my iPhone heavy.  So much so, that if I carry it in my pants pocket, my pants begin to sag and droop down my leg forcing me to tighten my belt which in turn cuts off circulation between my torso and my thighs.  It can get ugly, I tell you.  So, I delete.  I delete every day.  If I’m in an aggressive deleting mood on certain days, I do so with abandon.  The little rubber nub at the tip of my stylus begins to show signs of stress fractures about the width of three microns.  Soon I’ll have to spring for a new stylus.  $18.00 for a plastic pen-like thing that won’t even write.

But, I digress.

The general rule, as I see it, is that the fewer emails and such, the lighter my iPhone becomes.  But this brings on a new and very serious dilemma: some emails are heavier than others and I am forced to make a value choice.  There are texts from my wife about not forgetting to buy the Skim Milk.  A reminder of a doctor’s appointment.  A photo of my new grandson.  Some weird object or broken down barn that caught my eye while driving.  A note from my son thanking me for getting him two tickets for a Broadway show.  A birthday wish.  A simple “I love you” from someone I love in return.

I want to keep these special emotes, but I can’t keep them all.  My pants would sag.  So, how do I choose what goes and what stays?  I’ve come up with a rough rubric to solve this situation:

  • Some stuff is too heavy to hold onto.  A threat of an argument.  A negative comment.  A bad reminder of a bad memory.  These go.
  • Some messages are light and airy like a cloud…like smoke rising from a campfire…like morning mist rising from the lake.  The love notes….a promise kept…a secret revealed…an image of an infant, smiling his first smile and caught in pixels for all time by an…an iPhone.  These stay.

Once upon a time, many of these connections were made over a telephone.  But they had to be stored in your head.  Maybe that explains why people in the 1950’s seemed to walk around with their heads hanging.  Now, this slim package of diodes and chips are, at once, your wallet, purse, scrapbook, phone book, tape recorder, camera, arcade and library.  It’s all there in the palm of your hand.  And it fits nearly everywhere.  Now, that’s heavy.  Heavier than your soul.

So heavy, it can make your pants sag.


The Clock On The Wall: A Play In Eight Acts

Act 1: Sitting at an IBM workbench.

I knew the call would come soon.  I was soldering diodes onto a computer chip.  The resin smoked.  The phone rang in my manager’s office.  Go home to your wife, he said, she called and said it’s time.  I pass by the electronic parts window.  A guy says to play with them a lot and soon.  They grow up fast he called after me.  I pace the waiting room thumbing old copies of Argosy.  Early ’70’s, fathers-to-be weren’t allowed in the Delivery Room, remember.  The doctor pushes through the door.  Erin is here, he says.  Then he leaves.  In a short time I’m standing in a hallway and looking at the bassinet the nurse had pushed to the glass window.  I look down.  A red face looks back at me.  Erin is swaddled tight like a pharoh’s wife.  I look and think about the future.  There is a clock on the wall of the white room.  I think about grabbing the hands and stopping time.  Off to call the family.

Act 2: An apartment in Scranton.

I’m working full-time as a teacher.  That will take care of the next thirty-five years of my life.  You crawl and get into everything your hands can grab.  I sip a glass of wine at dinner and look over at you in your high-chair, your head is down and your cheeks are sitting in the mashed potatoes and peas.  They stick to your face when we move you.  You look like you’re part vegetable.  Your hair is light, not blonde, not red…but somewhere in that mix.

Act 3: The white farmhouse on the hill.

You seem to fall asleep in the oddest places.  I placed you on a potty chair and go to get a cold beer (we’re having a family reunion).  I come back and you are slumped on the little seat with your head resting nicely on your shoulder.  Were you dreaming about long ago when you went out into the world wrapped in a Pamper?  Some years later, I play kickball with you on our lawn.  Your face gets red.  My heartbeat rises.  There is chill in the late afternoon.  Your shadow is long upon the grass.  I wonder about your life to come.

Act 4: On a visit to the grandparents.

It’s thumb numbing cold as we take you to the IBM golf course where people are sledding.  There is a small (I thought) rise in the snow about half way down.  I got it alone.  Testing.  I hit the bump. The toboggan and I are airborne.  Too many seconds later we crashed back to the packed snow. Toboggan goes here.  I go there.  My eye glasses go somewhere else entirely.  You rush forward yelling. Is Daddy going to do that again?  No, I said, wiping the ice from my glasses.

Act 5:  Scene 1–Many years later.

You are in Dickinson College.  You have made it your job to post the most recent Top Ten List from the Letterman Show.  You are the expert when discussing Car Talk to anyone.  We come to visit you and see you in a play staged by the Mermaid Players.  It’s a Lanford Wilson  drama. (It’s like sticking pins in my eyes, after all, when the last words of Act 1 is Oh My God, Oh My God you know it’ll be a rough road).  I’m having a hard time wondering how my quiet, shy daughter will project from the stage.  We take you to lunch on the afternoon of the performance.  You gently inform your dad that your character will be a victim of an attempted rape.  I’m sweating.  Will I storm the stage?

Act 5: Scene 2  Many more years later.

Now your living in Georgia and Germany and Arizona and Savannah and India and D.C. and Washington.  We visit you in Germany and you take us to Dachau.  We leave with heavy hearts.  We visit you in Arizona and you take us horseback riding in the desert.  We see you less and less as you see more and more of the world.  I think again of the white room and the hands of the clock.

Act 6: Drinking coffee in Tacoma (what an unusual thing to do).

I walk you down the path in a field near Orting, WA.  You’re marrying the man you love, Bob.  “Here, There and Everywhere” is playing from the box.  Your loved ones have gathered to witness the marriage.  There is a rainbow in the cloudy skies toward Rainer.  Only someone watching me closely will notice a tear run down my cheek.  My heart is bursting with happiness for you.  And, under your white smock, a tiny life is growing.

Act 7: The late night phone call.

We wait and read and wait again.  Your a nation away and in a hospital room, a delivery room (Is it white? Is there a clock?)  The call comes on January 9, 2013.  A boy!  The two of you take your time deciding on a name.  Finally: Elias Muir.  A good name that reflects many ideas and feelings. A month later, I look into my grandson’s eyes.  I’m in there somewhere.  His fingernail contains a bit of my DNA.  He sees me.  He doesn’t know me, yet, but he’s staring.  He falls asleep in the oddest places…like my lap…for nearly four hours during the Super Bowl.  When you take him, I barely make it to the bathroom.  I had no idea my bladder would hold off until the fourth quarter.

Act 8: The denouement.

We were in orbit around each other for years.  A long time ago, you grew up, just like the guy at IBM said (but he failed to tell me how really, really fast that time would pass).  You grew up and the little child I kicked the ball with found other planets to orbit.  That’s the way that life goes.  It goes on and on, unbroken.  When you looked at your son moments after he was born, I’m sure you kissed him.  I had to wait about an hour before I got to kiss you.  I never thought I’d be a grandfather, but here I am.  And I’m old now, there’s no other way around it.  It’s as it should be.  It’s as it has to be.  But, please, whatever the future holds for me, promise me you will look at him like I looked at you (you’ll have to picture that part), and watch over him like I watched over you.  And play with him.  Play hard with him, because the time will pass so much faster than you could possibly imagine.  The stage is set now for you, Bob and Elias.  Go out and play the scene well.

I’ll wait in the wings.

ErinAdksChild                  Elias 4th week (4)

Gone and Still Forgotten in God’s Acre

“When out of sight, quickly also out of mind.”–Thomas a Kempis

They’re everywhere, like abandoned cars in the South Bronx (ca 1972), only you don’t see them on your way to the Bodega.  No, these are found in the verdant fields and well-kept lawns of cemeteries in counties like Westchester, NY or Crittenden, VT.  They are pieces of granite and marble and slate.  These are the lost headstones of once living souls.

After the grave-side service, the living go back to their homes and jobs.  The departed are left in the cold ground to await the Second Coming.  The stones above their heads are now proud reminders of a life lived.  Names, spouses, birth date, death date and maybe–if the family could afford it–a quote from the Bible or poem.  But when the living kin begin to join those who have gone before, the memories of the “old dead” start to fade.  Soon, no one is left to remember.

And then what?

I volunteer for a geneology group that provides photos of headstones upon request of the descendants. I get to wander graveyards.  Perhaps these are just off the village green, at the edge of a cornfield or on a lonely hillside.  When I locate and photograph a requested stone, I enter it onto a website.  I get heartfelt thanks, for this simple task, from those who wished to see the stone.  Some “thank you” emails are heartbreaking to read.  But what is more painful is to fail in locating the stone.  Many are simply too old to read through the lichen and weathering.

And then there are the stones that no one has asked for.  Too many lie broken, fallen and covered over by grass…but the mute stones want to talk.  Remember me?  Remember who I was and what I did and who I married and who I loved.  Recall how young I was when I met death? Or, how so very old I was, living beyond my allotted time from a century ago?  See my little stone with a lamb on top?  I was so young.  See the sad poem my lover or spouse had carved by my name?  I was handsome.  I was beautiful.  I put a gun to my head.  I passed in childbirth.  I died of a broken heart.  I died surrounded by family and a preacher.  I died alone.

Whatever they say to you, they know they are forgotten.

Mindless teenage boys push these stones over for fun. (May they rot in a special hell.)  Some inattentive back hoe operator backs into a stone and breaks it.  Whatever.

There is no one left to come and fix things.

This is where I come in.  As a walker of these domains, I wonder why we, as a society, can’t do more to protect and preserve the memorial to the past?  If we can declare a unique building in Buffalo a “landmark structure”, then why can’t the same logic extend to the neglected burying grounds of our forefathers (we are all related in some way).  Not all cemeteries are like Mount Hope in Hastings, NY, Greenwood in Brooklyn or Arlington with famous interments and rich endowments.  In these more commonplace grounds are all that is left of our links to the past.  These places are where “The rude forefathers of our hamlet sleep” (‘rude’ used here as a synonym for ‘common’.)

It has to start local and then move outward.  Churches, civic groups, boy and girl scouts, knitting societies, history buffs, students and gentle caring people could come forward to help to clean, restore and memorialize the hallowed grounds.

R.I.P.Rest In Peace should mean more than something we put on cardboard tombstones at Halloween.

Weeds need to be pulled and attention given to those whom we have never met, but link us to our common roots.

“Of all the pulpits from which the human voice is ever sent forth, there is none is none that reaches so far as from the grave.”

–John Ruskin


Where Are You Going, My Brown-Eyed Son?

Oh, where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

There you were, a small shadow on a monitor.  Small and washed by changing shades of black and white amid countless lines that made watching difficult. The Technician slowly moved the grey piece of equipment around the oiled skin of your mothers swollen abdomen.  There. Right there.  A  hand. Look at the fingers.  The thumb of the other hand seems to hover near your mouth.  A few months later I could make out your bent knee.  A few months later, you looked like a cherry wrapped in white as you lay in the incubator.  You wanted to get out on an early release program from the confines of the womb.  We were unprepared for how early you would be.  You drank the real milk and you waited for the mashed carrots.  And, you went through Pampers like quarters in Vegas.  That was when I began saving coupons.  Hey, a dime here and a dime there adds up.  You crawled and you would use my wooden stirring spoon to bang on over-turned pots and pans.  I rocked you to sleep singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Baby Beluga”.

Where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

We camped at beautiful sites on small ponds.  I took you to Howe’s Cavern and you said “Awesome, Dad”.  We collected leaves for your science project.  I encouraged you to play sports but you resisted me.  You wanted no part of Tai Kwan Do classes.  Soon, you learned to swim.  You joined the Little League.  We sat on an embankment while you got on first.  Next batter hits it long.  You begin to run toward right field but our shouts redirected you to second.  You went on to learn new skills.  You were a center in JV football.  We made origami animals. We rode an old train.  We snorkeled in Bermuda.  At dinner that night,  you almost met Ross Perot.

Oh, where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

I called your high school to have them find you in a class and let you know your stepmother and I were okay on Sept. 11, 2001.  I helped proof a few English papers for you.  We sit and watch you stroll across the stage to take your diploma.  A few years later, we watched you stroll across the stage to take your Associate Degree from BCCC.  Before we know it, you’ve come to New York City to stay with us in our one bedroom apartment while you studied for a B.A. at Baruch College.  Our one bedroom became a two bedroom…you slept on the pull-out sofa. My computer area became the kitchen table.  We had long talks late at night about the ethics of downloading music for free and other topics that lay buried deep in my memory bank.  The day after you graduated from Baruch, you moved to Queens to share an apartment with friends.  You landed a great job in the middle of the Recession.  Not bad, kid.

Where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

You watched as the movers packed up our belongings when we moved upstate.  You watched them wrap the piano and told us (we sat on the stairway in the hall) they did it as quickly and easily as stuffing a taco.  You said: “Have a safe trip north” when we pulled out to follow the van.  Were you happy for our new life or were you just happy to have the Big Apple to yourself without me bugging you all the time to join us for dinner?  In the eighteen months we’ve been gone, you moved on in many ways.  Promotions.  And less and less time at your shared apartment.  You have a friend.  She is a lovely woman with wit, talent and wisdom.  Be kind to my son.  I’ll be his father forever.  He and I are linked by an exquisite chain of DNA.  When he laughs, I laugh. When he’s happy, I’ll be happy.  And, if he cries, I’ll cry  too.

           943078_577493918452_379652877_n copy

                                         Oh, where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

Last Stop: Tir Na Nog!

Hardly a mythology exists that doesn’t include a “Land of Eternal Youth” tale.  It could be a Shangra-La, isolated in a mountain valley somewhere or Ultima Thule for those brave souls who travel to the Northern Realms.  There are Gypsy versions and Japanese variations, but, for my money, the Irish story is the most haunting in its terrible beauty and tragic end.  How else can the Irish see things?

Tir Na Nog–Land of the Young.  No, it is not a place on a distant and dismal shore across a dreadful river where the dead go to reside.  Indeed, it’s a place of beauty and love and youth.  Those who dwell there, however, are not mere mortals, they are god-like in a way.  But it is a paradise.  You stay there and everything stays fine…you are forever young.

But, as with all good things, there is a string attached.  It’s only a minor point, though–you see, you can never leave Tir Na Nog.  In truth, you can leave…but you can never return.  This  is not like leaving behind a dusty farm town full of broken-hearted maidens…and perhaps a child or two.  There is more at stake here.

If you get restless, and you find the path out…you’d better think twice, for if you depart, you must never touch the ground of the outside world.  If you do, by accident or intention, serious stuff will happen to you.  Age will fall on your body very, very fast.  If you lived 500 years in Tir Na Nog, well, you’ll soon look like a fast forward video of Joan Rivers’ life.

In the ancient day of Irish past, Niamh of the Golden Hair led the hero, Oisin to the “Land of the Young.” (Don’t ask, it’s a long story.)  Oisin, a mortal, needed a guide to take him to that magical place.  That’s the way it is in journey stories.  The guide could be Gandalf, Yoda or Virgil.

In my case, it was Mariam, my wife.  She saw this house and she loved it.

Which takes us to our home in the Adirondacks and the completion of the Tir Na Nog connection.  We moved here full-time in 2011.  We came up from New York City (now, there’s a place that can age you fast).

Our bodies are older now but our spirit has grown younger.  Instead of collapsing on the sofa from riding the No. 2 train from downtown, we now collapse from kayaking for five hours or hiking ten miles.  We continue to age when we visit the City, but, it seems to be at a faster rate.

So, I’ve come to the end of my story, sort of.

The real end is this:

  • We bought a camp on a lake.
  • We named it Tir Na Nog.

                                           [Thanks  to Wikipedia]


The Lawn and the Short of It

Why are people afraid of trees?

The Adirondack State Park, where I live, has something like 6,000,000 acres of land.  This great northern forest was to be held “forever wild.”  That was stated in Albany in the 19th century.

Now, it seems logical to me (I’m not Plato, mind you) that those who choose to live here would do so in the spirit of the “forever wild” clause, i.e., embracing the ethos of the natural environmental world that encompasses us.  This is a land of trees, rivers and mountains.  The operative word, for this post is ‘trees.’  Hey, I love a good rousing manly game of croquet as well as the next guy.  And can I put a Frisbee in the palm of a friend’s outstretched hand at fifty feet? You betcha.

So, having said all that, I now grow edgy and sullen when I drive by people who think they live in Newport, Rhode Island.

Simply put, I dislike lawns in the Adirondacks that are landscaped like Augusta National Golf Club.  As you compare and contrast (I used to be a teacher) the photos below, consider a few points:

  • The Carbon footprint for mowing these fields of Kentucky Bluegrass.
  • The egregious amount of water to keep the lawns as green as Connemara, Ireland.
  • The cutting of the trees (and then replanting selected nursery stock).
  • The alteration of the microclimate that comes with deforesting and replacing with grass.
  • The disruption of the landscape esthetic (argue if you want, but wilderness is vital to our spirits…look it up.).
  • Is Astroturf next?  Actually, on the shore line of a lake near my home, the owners put large sheet of plastic grass, I assume to prevent sand from touching the bathers feet.

These “McMansions” of the north sadden me and break my heart.

Look closely at the photos again:

Notice the top photograph and the Great Lawn.

In the lower photograph, there is a house there, a rather large one at that.  But you would never know it.

One property screams at you like a Brooklyn Dodgers Fan.  The other merely whispers like a gentle breeze.



Epitaphs: Part I

Anyone with a good eye can find a zillion stories in cemeteries.  That’s saying a great deal about a place where only mute stones stand there to speak to you.  The dead can’t tell their tales and in most cases, there will be no one around to tell of a life and give those reposing there, a voice.

Go to a nearby cemetery, walk among the stones and read of the lives of people you will never meet.  Or find the grave of a friend and continue your chat you started 37 years ago.

Edgar Lee Masters wrote a masterpiece of American fiction, “Spoon River Anthology.”  Thornton Wilder wrote a sublime play, “Our Town.”  Read the book, see the play and go stroll in a graveyard.  Stop, read and listen.  Someone is talking to you, crying, laughing, begging, or simply waiting…waiting for you to notice them.

I have read hundreds if not thousands of epitaphs for decades now.  I never cease to be moved, alarmed, shocked or humbled by what I read.  I’ve seen stone markers of suicides, 14 year-old murder victims, infants and people unknown or individuals who were quite famous.

I hope to share some of the more remarkable epitaphs I’ve collected in future postings.

Here’s one I recall from a solitary New England burying-ground.  The dates carved were in the early 18th Century.  It was the slate marker for twins:

“They tasted of life’s bitter cup.

Refused to drink the potion up.

Turned their little heads aside,

Disgusted with the taste, and died.”

Here’s one I photographed in early May, 2013:Image