Wednesday, August 27, 2008

And who were they?

My Great-grandfather died in Toronto during the flu outbreak of 1918. He left his wife and 5 children behind, the youngest just a baby. Because his family never accepted my Great-grandmother after they discovered that she conceived their first child out of wedlock, they snatched him back and buried him in a cemetery filled with his ancestors - away from her.

When she died just five years later (of a broken heart, my Grandma always said), she was buried with her parents. In a different cemetery altogether. Eternally separated from the man she adored, much to the satisfaction of his remaining family, I'm sure. There was space to bury her with her husband, but she wasn't.

There's no one left to confirm why this happened, although it's pretty easy to speculate that the simple reason was because she wasn't welcome there.

Years ago my parents and I paid a visit to the cemetery where he was buried. It's tucked away in an old residential area of the city, sun dappled and quiet. We hunted for his stone, anxious to find the resting place of the man we knew so little about. A man who had become somewhat mythic over the years, mostly because he was willing to forsake the support and affection of his family to marry the woman he loved.

We found the little pocket of ancestors all bearing my Grandmother's maiden name. Dozens of them scattered along the sloping hills of the cemetery where they'd been laid to rest generations earlier.

But we couldn't find him.

A visit to the cemetery office confirmed that he was indeed buried there, and they gave us the reference points so we could return to the specified row to check again.

When we did, all we found was an empty space. No marker. No stone. Nothing to indicate that he was buried there at all.

For whatever reason, his family saw fit to reclaim him but not to mark his resting spot. Presumably his window, left to care for their five young children, didn't have money to spend on a stone for her beloved. His grave was indistinguishable from the lawn around it. Unless you were looking for him, like we were, you'd never have known he was there at all.

I happened to pass by the cemetery after a meeting last week, and the story of the missing marker popped back into my head.

I was talking to my parents about it yesterday. It has probably been 15 years since we discovered the missing marker, and I couldn't remember if it had been taken care of or not.

As it turns out, his grave still remains unmarked. Life got in the way and no one got around to getting a marker.

"Oh", I said, feeling sad for the man who remains invisible in death.

"But you know what?", My Dad said, "It doesn't matter at all now, does it? It just doesn't matter at all."

I think he meant that in the grand scheme of things, an unmarked grave isn't a big deal, especially when it has been unmarked for 90 years. He's in heaven. He's been reunited with his beloved. We know where he is, body and soul, even if the world at large doesn't.

All's well that ends well.

But of course, my mind wandered to where it was lingering last night.

It doesn't matter because it's possible that soon there will be no one left to care. After we die, the simple fact is that there's just no one left to care. No one to remember him, or the love story that was so sweetly passed down through the years.

And this is what eats at me.

It's not that I think the story of my family is more interesting than anyone else's, and I realize that that it doesn't hold great historical importance to anyone but me. But it's just heartbreaking to think that it's conceivable that those stories may one day simply disappear. That all those people who lived and loved and died will truly vanish when I close my eyes for the last time.

I never imagined that this would be something I'd find myself absorbed in, this fear of being one of a forgotten people. When I was actively researching my family tree back in my early twenties, the farthest thing from my mind was the notion that there might be no one for whom my hours of research would one day be a cherished gift.

My Dad's right. It really doesn't matter. There are greater worries in life. Far, far greater tragedies. I know this to be true.

But it's another sorrow to add to the list. A small one, true. But yet another sorrow just the same.

And it's not fair. It's just. Not. Fair.

1 comment:

Denise said...

I know of two little boys that will remember you and your angel. I don't think you ever will know how far your words reach.