Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Glimpses

Almost by definition you can't get the whole story at a cemetery. All we get is fragments, snapshots. A skewed view. And yet...


Because from her own gravestone I know when she died, and how old she was just then, I also know when the future Mrs. Lucy Willson was born. But not much else, for a while. Because of what else I see on the surrounding stones, I want it to have been that the first 35 years of her life were blissfully happy. I surmise that sometime, presumably prior to 1791, she married one Mr. Solomon Willson. And again, I want the marriage to have been happy and warm.

Because some things I do know. I know that the turn of the century was not kind to Mrs. Willson. Whatever it was that came through her small New England town in late spring of 1800, or maybe something cruelly particular to her household, something in the water maybe, whatever it was though, it took her eight year old at the very end of May. And a week later it, or something else-- who knows,-- took her baby, only months old.

1801 was the year she buried the two infants whose stone caught my eye in the first place. And in January of 1803, another infant. Though perhaps she didn't literally bury that one, since only three days later Mrs. Lucy Willson herself passed from this world. Presumably from complications of childbirth. She was 38.

I wonder whether she knew she was dying. I wonder if at that point it seemed like a welcome relief. Or not. Because I also wonder how many other children was she leaving behind. I want it to have been not zero. Not because I want those children to have been left motherless, or because I want it to have been that she spent years and years of her life pregnant or breastfeeding, or both. And not because I think the ones she would've been leaving behind in that scenario would've made lovely consolation prizes. But because, even two hundred plus years later, I just don't want the five buried next to her to have been it.


Mr. Solomon Willson, by the way? He lived a long and, judging by the thickness and the width of his eventual tombstone-- both significantly greater than Lucy's and the children's,-- and made of a more substantial material too, prosperous life. He remarried, and his second wife is buried with him, having lived a long life herself. Whether the second Mrs. Willson was luckier or unluckier than the first in the childbearing department, that I do not know-- none of her children are buried anywhere nearby. Though maybe all it means is that she didn't ever have any. Either way, if Lucy's surviving children did exist, I want the second Mrs. Willson to have been a good step mother to them.



Glimpses and shadows.

28 comments:

Beruriah said...

Me too, Julia, to all of this.

Beautiful.

My Reality said...

That glimpse has revealed so much. Sometimes, we really can read between the lines.

loribeth said...

There are so many stories in a cemetery.

Inanna said...

This post made me cry, for Lucy, for you, for me, for all mothers who love their babies.

Thank you.

k@lakly said...

It remends me that while all of this feels so very new and uncharted by so many of us, it really has been a path cut deep, by too many, countless many, other women before and sadly, after, us.

Mrs. Spit said...

It was the older women, who came and held my hand and understood the road I was walking. Perhaps what struck me most was their sense of incredulity - that this could still be happening.

janis said...

oh my gosh, Julia, this just took my breath away...

Jenni said...

when i was pregnant i did some reading about how birthing a baby connects us to this enormous history of women's experience going all the way back to the beginning of time. after angel mae died i started thinking about how that's a universal experience too - such a long, long history of women who lose their children. and each time, for each woman, this acute grief and pain. sometimes i'm amazed that war and violence are still going on. that the accumulated pain of all babyloss mamas thoughout time and space hasn't massed into a huge resistance to death, an enormous fight against disease and violence, so that no one, anywhere has to lose a child again. ever.

niobe said...

Gorgeous post.

angie said...

beautiful, julia. these are the lives we now notice...

Tash said...

In 1793, in Philadelphia, there was a horrible yellow fever outbreak. (I just looked it up: between the war and 1800, Boston went through 3 smallpox outbreaks and the yellow fever as well.) There's a church by my aunt's house, outside the city just over the river, and the cemetery is filled with stones of young people, all with 1793 expiration dates. I wonder if they tried to flee the heat and humidity of the city; if the church, which served as a hospital during the war, picked up it's role again at this time; or if the fever spread and hit people like fire. It doesn't matter I guess. But you're right, looking at the families you just hope this wasn't the end of the line -- for all involved.

This story also reminds me of a classic family tree from VA in the 1600s that I often pull out to show students: within a space of a few years, children who were born lost their mother; father remarried, then father died. By age 7 or so, three children found themselves living with parents to whom they had no blood relation.

Anyway, lovely -- your post and Niobe's. I've always been fascinated with cemeteries, and I suppose much moreso, now.

Magpie said...

Yes, J - the stories one finds in old cemeteries are fascinating.

Modern cemeteries don't have the same stories embedded; the tombstones tend to be so much more stark.

Lollipop Goldstein said...

I am speechless. Julia, this post was beautiful.

Lori said...

There is an old, old cemetery near where my in-laws have a summer cottage. We have to walk through it to get to the small beach. I, too, look at what can be seen and build lives around the bits of eroded data.

I love this post, even though it put a lump in my throat.

Betty M said...

This post was beautifully elegiac. Fitting to the melancholy that old cemeteries carry with them.

Bon said...

this is haunting, indeed.

i spoke with my 89-year-old grandfather the other day about the swine flu panic. and about the flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919, the latter being the year he was born. i asked him if there were many echoes of it left, the fear of it, through his childhood.

he told me that the first stones in the town cemetery from the year of his birth were the five children from the farm next door, each a day apart. i asked the same question you wondered of Lucy Wilson..."were there others?" three, he said. three survived, of eight.

i have been wanting a place to tell that story since i heard it. this seemed the right one.

Lori said...

Beautiful, Julia.

It actually makes me wish I knew more to be able to tell my own grandmother's story of motherhood and loss. Though she lived to be an elderly woman, I only know that she lost several babies as a young woman. Even my father (her only living child) knew next to nothing about her losses and was shocked to one day (as an adult) happen upon the gravesite of his infant brother, James. Baby James, and the others, were never spoken of. I wish I could have asked her but I also wanted to respect her silence.

Thank you for painting this hauntingly lovely picture.

Artblog said...

Perfectly stunning :)

Virginia said...

My grandparents-in-law had a little girl, born in London during WWII, Marion. She died sometime after birth, maybe lived a few days. That's all we know about her. They went on to have my father-in-law, but no more children.

I wish I could ask them now, about her, but they died before Ben. My grandfather-in-law actually died the same day I delivered Ben, and I liked to think of the two of them meeting each other in some great beyond somewhere.

And those photos - generations of sorrow, unfathomable to most, and I wish unfathomable to us.

Kristin said...

Wow...what a beautiful post.

Sarah said...

I love cemeteries, old and new. Such intimate information you can discover about total strangers, whether 2-300 years ago or 2-3 years ago. Great post.

Cara said...

Julia - I feel somehow remiss to this mother, like I fight the good fight for those that are living and breathing their loss...but never searched for the others who lived, and died, for their babes.

Visiting Lucy will be top of my to do list...thanks - for being there, for support, and for the perspective I couldn't have that day. Gorgeous post...just stunning.

christina(apronstrings) said...

i bet you have said more about lucy's lost babies than anyone in her community ever did. i mean, we are silent about lost babies (i can't say d- - -)(though, lost doesn't cut it).
i never knew anyone around me -IRL-who had had a miscarriage. until i did. then i found out that so many women do. and that my neighbor had a stillbirth. and then another.
it seems to me (what do i know-really my m/c's were soooo early) that mourning would be at least a bit easier if we did it as a community. really, it's a moral outrage that we don't.

CLC said...

Sometimes it's hard to remember that I/you are not the first women to lose babies, especially when your grief is raw and fresh. I often have to remind myself that I am not the first one to have this happen and I will not be the last one (unfortunately). Thanks for sharing this story.

Gal aka SuperMommy said...

I have thought so much since losing Tikva how our times in the US are unusual, because we get pregnant and birth children not holding the very real possibility that they might die. Times were so different for the Willsons, when babies, children, adults died young. More often did not make it than those who did. It was just a part of life. Not to discount how sorrowful it must've been for Mrs. Willson, but I bet she didn't take for granted everyone's survival and wellbeing. I wonder if, in a way, she was a little better off than those of us who have been so thrown off by the totally unexpected loss of our children... Is that awful to say?

charmedgirl said...

wow julia...i know. i often, even before paige, walked through the village cemetery and read all the stones, trying to concoct stories and timelines.

when i read your post, though, my hope was actually the opposite of yours; i hope she didn't leave any children behind. i mean, to have so much baby death...it may have been consoling to her to think she'd be with all her children again soon. i fear dying early and leaving my childen, knowing that i wouldn't want to leave them SO BADLY.

on the other hand, i'm not so sure dying before ever having the experience of a child that didn't die is any better.

Rosepetal said...

I want that too. I still can't get over how the living carry on living after the dead have died.

GI said...

Julia, what is the locate of this head stone...cemetry, town, state ?