“A Cemetery Walk” by Steve O’Connor

Writer and blog reader Steve O’Connor shares with us an essay for Veterans Day that was originally written for the UML Sunrise program:

My daughter plays softball for the Lowell Mariners in the Oliveira League. Her home field is Ventura, tucked in the corner of Lowell at the back of three city cemeteries. I have to get her to the field about a half hour before the game begins, and it’s become my routine to take a stroll through the vast surrounding necropolis.

There is nothing so peaceful as a walk in a cemetery on a sunny day, I think, and yet the feelings that arise are more complex than simple calm or relaxation. There is reverence. I feel as a guest in the city of the dead, one who still has what they once treasured above all else, or perhaps above almost everything else.

I wonder as I pause to read aloud the names and dates on the old stones if somewhere their spirits are stirred to hear those forgotten syllables spoken once again by living lips. The angels took him on a sunny day, reads one inscription, a palpable warning to me as I move among the shadows of the maple boughs. Husband we shall meet again on the other shore.

I imagine all the scenes of grief that have been played out among the countless stones, especially those that are dedicated to children, like the Little Freddy who rests in Edson. And yet on this day of light and flying clouds, grief has been, as Yeats once wrote, “washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell about the stars and broke in days and years.” There is nothing left here but calm and peace.

Since I’m in Edson, I loop back along Lincoln Street. I remember the young women I knew in the old days who used to give these streets as addresses to guys they met in Pollards or the Raft, and were not eager to see again. And here is Lincoln and Seventh, Jack Kerouac’s last address. He honored life. Stella his wife. Someone has left two silver dollars on the flat stone. I don’t think they’ll do Jack any good, but I leave them where they are, since the last thing I need is to have some bad Kerouac Juju pursuing me through life.

There is also a glass vase of fast withering flowers, and a pen that is pushed into the earth beside the stone. The grass is worn away from the countless visitors, and a cross has been scratched into the dirt above the Lonesome Traveler. I say a brief prayer, and looking up, realize for the first time that from this spot, I can see my daughter on the pitcher’s mound at Ventura.

I move on, noting the music of the names, and looking for some clue to the life that each stone represents. I pass the statue of Passaconway, whom early histories of the area refer to as the great sachem. He’s not buried here, the groundskeeper has told me, but it was placed there at some point, he didn’t know why. The inscription reads: Passaconway, Chief of the Penacooks, Friend of the White Man Embraced Christianity. Died at the Age of 122. Known as Aspinquid, the Indian Saint. Larger than life, as was his legend, Passaconway seems to search the horizon. He wears buckskin, a curved hunting knife in his belt, the feathered headdress of a chief, and a necklace of bear claws: a reminder of his name: Passaconway-Son of the Bear. The statue is in need of repair; one hand is missing, and the caretaker has also told me that his bow and quiver are locked in the cemetery storehouse. It was dedicated on August 19, 1899, and if it is ever refurbished, I wouldn’t be averse to removing the plaque that says “Property of the Improved Order of Red Men.”

I walk out of Edson and along the wrought iron railings to St. Patrick’s Cemetery, where one name among all the rest casts some pall over the brilliance of the day: my father, James Roderick O’Connor. Contrary to the old custom, it is he who lies with my mother’s people. There are names beside my father’s on the stone that I’ve heard mentioned all my life: Mike Leahy, my mother’s uncle, a fiddler from Cork. I have a photo of him, but he only exists to me only in the two or three stories I’ve often heard repeated. There are others who live at the periphery of memory: Nora, and Ella, and others of whom I know nothing but that they came before me.

Standing there at my father’s grave, I recall a story my cousin told me only recently about my father. When the war broke out, he was working on the railroad. As such, he was considered essential personnel, and was protected from the draft. One day, he told his boss that he was taking Saturday off to go to his sister’s wedding. The boss said, “You can’t have the day off.” Jim responded, “You don’t understand. I’m not asking you for the day off. I’m telling you I’m going to my sister’s wedding.”

“If you go to that wedding your name will be removed from the protected list.”

“I’m going to do what I have to do,” he said, “and you do what you have to do.”

Not long after, my father boarded the troopship Fairisle bound for the Pacific Theater. He could be hard-headed, “a real Mick,” as they say, but like so many of his generation, he was not willing to compromise when it came to something he perceived as an obligation.

I return and pass through Edson on the way back to Ventura. Here is the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Lot, where a great ship’s anchor rests on a stone pedestal. Veterans of the Civil and Spanish American wars. Leonard Thompson, Gunner’s Mate, USN. Sarah Ingalls, Army Nurse, Civil War.

The last cemetery I pass through is Westlawn, where I see the headstone of “George J. Varentos, June 25, 1870, Sparta, Greece. Pioneer of the Lowell Greek Community of 1893. American citizen of 1900. Died November 13, 1951.” Here lies a Spartan who was so proud to become an American that he had the date of that event etched into his headstone.

It’s time for me to get back to my daughter’s softball game, but I stop at one last stone. “Erected by Clan X,” the inscription reads, “Edward Rowe, born in Paisley, Scotland, July 30, 1898, Killed in Action in Cheriy, France, August 28, 1918.” There are lines of a poem below that, but I have to rub off the lichen from the stone, and pull the moss out of the graven letters:

Left untended the herd
The flock without shelter
Left the corpse uninterred
The Bride at the Altar
And like the wind and the wave
Swept on to defend his native country.

Later, when I google those lines, I find that they are taken from “The Pibroch of Donald Dhus,” written by Sir Walter Scott in 1816, all except the last two, which appear to have been inserted for the occasion.

The stanza should conclude:

Leave the deer, leave the steer
Leave nets and barges
Come with your fighting gear
Broadsword and targes.

And researching the date, I conclude that Edward Rowe probably died on the first day of the Oise-Aisne Offensive. I find myself wondering about Sarah Ingalls and Little Freddy and Leonard Thompson. I imagine Edward Rowe shouting to his comrades in his thick Paisley brogue as he went over the top. A forgotten hero of a forgotten battle, and I leave the graveyard feeling strangely alive, and every inch a mortal.

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