There’s a beautiful cemetery near my office, about a kilometer away, with a botanical garden and beautiful Interfaith chapel. Strange as it may seem I love taking my friends there for a picnic, which was how it was first introduce to me. Sitting by the koi pond, sharing sandwiches and salads with a neighbour who worked in town as well, I fell in love with the huge trees, hosta beds, and day lillies.
Later, when I ran out of daring friends, I used the winding paths for my outdoor runs and winter walks. If I got the pace right, I could cover most of the trails in my 45 minutes of gasping. Sometimes when Frank would run with me, I reminded him that slowing down in more ways than one would likely delayed our journey to the be the next headstone.
The cemetery is the resting place for many notable Canadians, Prime Ministers, hockey legends, and kingmakers. There are also military and police members who lie there, many from decades ago left by their families who have long since moved on.
A few years ago, at the end of one of my runs, I stopped to rest on a grassy slope across from the hosta gardens. Beside me, covered with weeds and overgrowth, was this little gravestone. It marks the grave of Susan Anna, infant daughter of Harry & Verse Crerar, born 20 May 1933 and died 14 June 1933. I cleaned away the growth and weeds, brushed off the stone and sat back in wonder at this little life that barely lasted 25 days. Not even long enough to become “beloved daughter” of Harry & Verse, not even long enough to warrant more than a descriptive with a categorical word: infant daughter.
Over the months, I wrote stories in my head about who they were. 1933 in Ottawa would have seen the 16th season of the Ottawa Senators before they left for 58 years, Cyrville Road was a potato-growing field, there was an increase of 850% in case load at the Ottawa Welfare Bureau, and the charitable organization that would become the United Way was founded. I imagined Harry as a slight man, likely a labourer who eked out a living working in a bakery or driving a trolley. Verse, of course, stayed home, holding her grief and sorrow tight to her bosom while making meals, caring for her other children, and cleaning the house. Or perhaps, they had left Ottawa, the area being to burdened with poor pay and sad memories of their lost child. I imagined that if Susan Anna had a sister (I never thought she would have a brother), she would now be in her 70’s. Greyed and slight with a stoop in her walk, she may still come by the grave to remember her sibling whom she never knew or only knew fleetingly.
My breath caught and my heart tightened each time I walked or ran past the little marker. There were never signs of anyone’s visit and its carved words seem to fade more and more. I became frightened that, in time, Susan Anna would fade unwitnessed into history. So my visits became more than an adjunct to my activities. I took the time to rub the lichen off the gravestone, clear the base of grass and weeds, and chatted with little Susan Anna, bringing her up-to-date on all the wondrous changes in the world since she entered and so quickly left it. Sometimes, I even tried to explain that her parents and family loved her and perhaps were constrained in how that love could manifest.
I think I spoke as much to reassure Susan Anna that she had been loved as I did to reassure me.
… tomorrow: truth be told
Thank you for practicing,
When we first moved to our little town the first job I had was caretaker of the little cemetery. It gave me immediate introduction to the community and an ongoing lesson in the local history and the local tragedies; also a continuing tutorial on impermanence. The loveliest aspect of it was on Memorial Day when all the graves were decorated by the community. The communion with the dead is a vital part of our awareness. Yes, a vital part.
Thank you for expressing your practice.
Lives unknown by us have such influence on this present.
In this life, I was born after a stillborn, a sister I never knew and who was never named.
Yet the nameless and unspoken grief, the fear of future loss affected our family in ways I cannot express.
Something deep within lies hidden to me and I hold a deep curiousity to uncover.
I too walk in graveyards and read the names, the dates and imagine the stories.
The dead live through our lives and our memories as well as our actions. To honor them with symbolic gestures and rites. It is a privilege to do so….
With gratitude to Genju for this beautiful tribute and remembrance.
This is very heart touching indeed… I used to do geneaology to try to trace my roots in New England, where I grew up. I spent many a time in old cemeteries, finding old grave stones such as this. My mother’s sister (my grandmother’s first child) only lived 25 days. The only marker was a small bunny with no name (although she had been named.) By the time I went searching, the marker could not be found… Thank you for stopping by Susan Ana and leaving the whispers of your heart! And – for sharing them with us! Deeply – Christine
About 15 years ago, an uncle (now deceased) took me out to visit tiny family graveyards in the woodlands of southern Arkansas. Many of these graveyards had less than 20 graves in them and probably 1/3 of the graves were occupied by young children who died at under 3 years old.
I asked me uncle about this and he said that, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when a child got sick, there was virtually nothing that could be done. There were no doctors in this area of Arkansas and no effective treatments. Colds turned to pneumonia, which resulted in death.
I can’t imagine the toll of this transiency. I can’t imagine raising children, knowing that some of them would die at an early age. I can’t imagine how people went on.
But they did go on and this says something about our capability for letting go and healing. (I hope I’m not romanticizing this…)
Thank you for your tenderhearted care and love for this little girl. Very touching. Deep bow and lotsa Metta to you.
What a lovely, tender, wistful tale. Such gentle compassion to befriend this little soul. It makes me think of a couple of things – the book “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt where as Barry mentions, parents sat helplessly by, sometimes in cold apts nursing sick babies only to watch them die.
Also makes me think of a family tidbit Iong forgotten, of a still born sibling my mother never spoke a word of. My brother told me that years ago he found the obit buried in one of her drawers. Perhaps some stranger has befriended this little grave (if there is one). Many bows to you for your tender heart.
Thank you, Everyone! I am blown away by your deep and open-hearted sharings. I don’t know what motivated this story at this time, on this day but here it is. Your comments also reminded me of witnessing my mother’s miscarriage. It took me years to figure out that was what had been happening on that evening. How interesting!
Barry, I think we do go on… there’s a part of us that is resilient and solid which takes over. Thankfully so.