Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Once again, we took too few days to visit The Old City. We realized that by the weekend, and so tried to jam all the things we still needed to do, and all the people we still wanted to see, or see again, into the remaining couple of days. This is how come on Monday morning I found myself heading for the city cemetery without my family, but with an old family friend, Alex, who looks after the graves of my maternal maternal great-grandparents. I also had in my purse the "address" of my paternal maternal great-grandparents' grave, but I remembered not finding it last time we were in the city (although I had less precise "address" last time).

The Old City Cemetery is a sprawling affair, with no staff to maintain the grounds beyond the quick and dirty, with sections, but not rows marked, and with so little space between the rows, that if two plots facing each other both have their fences set just a bit outside of the allotted space, you can't fit in the few remaining inches and have to circle one of the plots to continue walking your chosen row. Spring has been late coming to The Old City, and when it came, it came with a vengeance, making most of our days there almost unbearably hot, and bringing up weeds in the cemetery to above my waist in less than three weeks.

Because of the weeds it took us a little bit to find my maternal great-grandparents' grave. I've been there before-- two and a half years earlier, when we came to The Old City last. I knew from then that my great-grandfather's headstone also had the pictures of their two sons who perished in the war. I knew also how much her big brothers meant to my grandmother, how much she wanted a son herself, and how happy she was when she found out I was pregnant with a boy. Some weeds have sprung on the plot itself, making their way from under the tiles, displacing the tiles in the process. Alex went to get me some water for the peonies I bought for the graves, and I was left at the plot by myself.

I was pulling the weeds around my great-grandmother's grave with determination usually reserved for things that seem more consequential-- I knew, even as I was doing it that the weeds will be back, probably before I have left the country-- when I looked up to see the simple inscription on the gravestone. Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. That's me, I thought. I made her a great-grandmother. And although I don't remember her, I know she knew me. At the time, I knew her too. I looked at my great-grandfather's stone. It's signed by the wife, daughter, and a granddaughter. That's my mom. When my great-grandfather died, my aunt wouldn't be born yet for another two years, and when born, she would be named after him. My great-grandmother outlived her husband by a generation. A whole generation. I stood up then, and asked them whether they knew my son. He is a good boy, I said. That was something I haven't done before-- I acknowledged, by the very act of speaking these words, speaking them instinctually, realizing that I was saying them only as they were coming out of my mouth, what I believe about the other side. I am not even sure what it is I believe exactly, but at the time, I believed they could hear me, and I believed they could know him.

I finished cleaning up, Alex returned with water, and I set up the flowers and took pictures for my grandmother, my mom and my aunt. We stopped by the graves of Alex's parents-- they lived across the hall and were like surrogate grandparents to me. Then it was time to look for my father's grandparents' graves. That took a while-- the rows are not marked, and we miscounted at first. When I found it, I wasn't sure it was actually them-- I have never even seen their pictures, and I didn't know my great-grandmother's given name. But the thing that was most confusing to me was that there was another person listed on her gravestone-- a son, 22 years old, perished in the war. I didn't know he existed. I cleaned up there too, all the while thinking of the story my grandmother told about how distraught my father was when she told him his grandmother had died. He was ten, I think. My father's grandfather only outlived his wife by five years. Neither of them got to see any of the great-grandchildren. I think that's why I haven't thought much of them, or heard stories-- they were long gone by the time I came around. And yet, somehow, this knowledge that they had a son, and that he died, suddenly meant so much to me. I asked them too, consciously this time, whether they knew my son.

It wasn't until I was on the plane back to the States that I found what I think is the reason this great uncle I never knew existed got to me. All of a sudden, my two sets of great-grandparents, people who never met, became real to me through the shared tragedy of their lives. Both had three children, both lost their sons. My mother's grandparents were left with a daughter, my father's-- with two. And it occurred to me that maybe I know a little something about them because my son died too.

Their lives were harder, no doubt. They lived through much turmoil, through the war, three of them died young. And yet, I am sure of it, their hearts broke in much the same way as ours do. I don't envy them, for sure, but I do think they had some advantages over me-- they got to raise their sons, for one. For another, people must have acknowledged their losses-- their sons died in a war, like so many others, and people around knew that pain, saw it everywhere. But mostly, it's not about who had it better, it's just about the shared pain. I am sure they had happiness too, I am sure they delighted in the same things we do-- living children, friends, nice days, for example. But it took their pain to make them more than an obligation.

You see, we had so many things to get done, so many living people to see, that I was really tempted to skip the cemetery this time. But I knew it was important to my grandmother, and so I went. Now it's important to me too.


Sara said...

Oh, Julia, this post made me cry. I'm sure all your greats know your son, too. I'm so glad you found the time to go to the cemetery.

meg said...

Julia, it's a lovely idea to be in the cemetery and speak to them. I sometimes talk to my Nana in this way, asking her to take care of the girls. I often think that I'd like to return home, so that I could visit her grave. I haven't been there since the funeral. I feel close to her all the time, but I would like to see what it would be like to go back to her resting place (since my losses). You always give me something to think about!

S. said...

It is so funny how things converge in blogland. I also just posted about visiting my family's burial plot, not knowing that you were doing the same thing. That stone also reveals a tragedy, a baby who I think was my grandfather's first cousin, and who lived only a week.

It made me think of how common it was to outlive your children, even a few generations ago.

Welcome back, by the way. It must be hard to return when you feel like your time there was too short.

Bon said...

shivers, Julia.

i have secret internal conversations with myself about the loss of children...because Dave's parents lost his older brother at 22, and i wonder sometimes if i envy them knowing him, getting to raise him, and then my heart breaks at the magnitude of the hole he must have left, when my own was so great.

and yet you're's not about who's pain is's a sharing of a sort. me trying to understand them, and myself as well.

this was a beautiful post.

missing_one said...

How enlighting. This inspires me.

niobe said...

This post made me realize that I have no idea where any of my family or L's family is buried. L's grandmother died when L's mother was 3 and L's mother died when L was in his early 20s, but we've never been to their graves.

Perhaps in compensation, I like to wander through cemetaries and read the inscriptions on the gravestones of strangers, admire the carvings, and have imaginary conversations with the dead.

You're very lucky that you can visit your family and see how their lives were similar in some ways to yours, even though they're buried so far away.

Adelynne said...

Grandma has a picture of the headstones of her parents and brothers in the guest room. I remember staying with her overnight (Grandpa was alive then) and looking and reading and wondering.

When we were last there - Doyle and I had gone to tell her we were engaged - I took out the old photo albums and she talked about them. It was quite nice.

Lori said...

Julia- Welcome back. This was beautiful. I do sometimes think about my Dad being with Molly and Joseph. But I can't think too hard about it because I want so much for that to be true, and yet fear that it is not.

My grandmother lost several babies, I believe most of them were lost early in pregnancy. However, my dad did have a brother who was born, and then died in infancy. His name was James. My Dad never even knew he had existed until he himself was a grown adult, and only because he saw the headstone. Cemeteries can reveal so much.