What purpose the grim granite slabs served other than to see to it that the dead did indeed stay buried, for I can imagine even on Judgment Day the newly risen struggling to break their way through the thick slabs. Perhaps it was merely considered the simplest, if not the most cost-effective, way to keep the grass under control. Deeper into the cemetery proper the graves retained the low granite walls but the interiors were most often filled, more economically, with simple crushed gravel. It is this almost total lack of color, a ubiquitous gray the color of mildew – though mildew is soft and furry while this gray is oppressively heavy and incorrigibly hard – that sets the grim mood. There is not a single blade of grass in evidence, only a few live oaks give the scene a touch of green, and here and there, an occasional bunch of artificial flowers, mostly faded, adds a bit of color.
According to my estimate, a good two-thirds of the names are Portuguese: Cabral, Ruis, Lopes, Gomes, Bettencourt, Dutra, Amaral, Oliveira, Pimental, Sousa, Serpa, and Cardosa spelled four different ways, some with an “s” and some with a “z”, some ending in “a” and some in “o”, and once, as I had never before seen it, beginning with a “K”, Kardosa. The number and variety of these Azorean family names seemed endless, and that didn’t include all the Ferrys who had once been Farias, and the Smiths who had once been Ferreiras, or the Stantons (at least two of them) who had once been God-alone-knew what. The two most common names, however, were Silva and Faria, which proved, finally, to make our task virtually impossible.
But we did make one discovery not far from the front gate, the tomb of the Old Whaler who had built the house I once shared with my grandmother. One of the largest in a stately row of granite cenotaphs had the letters STANTON carved on its base. There had been another Stanton cenotaph just inside the front gate, the largest monument in the cemetery, in fact, with a bas relief portrait of the man it honored and the place of birth clearly marked Ireland. The face of our Stanton monument was divided into two halves, the right half had the names E. J. Stanton 1843 – 1911 and R. Stanton 1854 – 1924, Enos and Rita Stanton, the latter being my Great-grandmother Faria’s older sister. But what truly confirmed that the names behind the inconclusive initials were indeed Enos and Rita was the sole name on the left half, which for an instant took my breath away, my own name, Julius Silva, and the heart-rending dates, 1905 – 1910. Here lay the young man who had unwittingly been the cause of many, if not most, of my emotional problems. For I too had been baptized Julius, after him, though no one in my family ever once addressed me by that name, not even my grandmother, and I went all the way through grammar school without my classmates knowing that I had any name other than Buzzy Silva, until it came time to graduate and to my great shame my diploma clearly read: Julius Silva for all the world to read.
I hated the very sound of that name, and whenever it was voiced, I took umbrage in all manner of frowns and blushes and facial tics. It seemed, first of all, due to its very lack of use, completely alien to me. If it was indeed my name, why had no one ever used it? It was also, I thought, in itself an unconventionally odd name, even rather grandly pompous, since the only other Julius most people had ever heard of was Caesar, and I wasn’t about to attempt to live up to that great Julius. I tried to justify my aversion to the name as being objectively phonetic: the first name ending in the same letter that the last name begins does create an unpleasant affect. So all on my own, about the time I entered St. Mary’s College at seventeen, I changed the final “us” to “an” and became Julian to all my new friends, and soon, after a few years, more importantly, I became Julian in my own eyes as well, though I still remained legally Julius. My Social Security number, the deed to my house, even my passport all officially belonged to this now alien Julius – which caused all manner of convoluted explanations. Until I finally took steps.
The cheapest, fastest and simplest way to make me legally Julian was to have my parents perjure themselves by swearing before notaries that the name on my birth certificate had been misprinted, which , since it saved well over a thousand dollars, they both happily agreed to do (another one of their victimless crimes). I then sent copies of their perjury to every necessary governmental agency. Only the deed to my house had to wait until the thirty-year mortgage was paid off, before it officially belonged to the rechristened Julian.
We never finally found the grave we were looking for. It may even have been one of those near the front fence that had been vandalized beyond recognition, but back at the parish house we were shown a book containing the names of all those buried in the now defunct cemetery. The list, however, was immense and so haphazardly arranged as to be virtually useless. All the names beginning with F were under the letter F, but they were not otherwise in alphabetical order, or arranged by any other system I could devise, so that it took some time to find the Faria we most wanted: Frank Faria, who died in 1933, aged 72, which explains why I, who was six at the time of his death, can remember him so vividly, while my brother, who was three, has only the vaguest recollection of him.
My brother, who is also the most taciturn of men – he spends his words with far greater thrift than he spends his dollars, and he is not known for being reckless with the latter – had already on the ride back from St. Joseph’s to the parish house handed me a series of five photographs of family tombstones from Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, taken to aid his grandson’s project. If he had mentioned them earlier, he might have spared me considerable effort, for I had assumed, because at least two of our great-grandparents were buried in Saint Joseph’s, all of the others had also been buried there, and hoping that my great-grandfather Silva might have been buried alongside his first wife, our ancestor, I would at last find a name to give to her photograph.
My assumptions, of course, were wrong, and the one identification I did finally make with the help of these pictures was that of the once-anonymous Woman in the Doorway. Only two of the gravestones my brother photographed give the days and months as well as the years of birth and death, that of my parents among them. The gravestone of my maternal grandparents is interesting only in that their baptismal names, Philomena and Joaquin, are clearly spelled out, while the names by which everyone who had ever known them, Minnie and Jack, are nowhere to be seen. All of the first four stones eschew the clichés of the obituary columns (“beloved wife of, etc.”) and confine their legends to the barest of facts. The last alone, the tomb of my Great-grandfather Silva, who was in life an almost chillingly unsentimental man, looks like a greeting card.
Only the great – pharaohs, popes and kings – build their own tombs before their deaths. For the rest of us, the task is left to the living survivors, who are given the chance to write their own version of the lives of the now-defenseless departed. The word SILVA is printed in large letters at the top on a scroll. Directly below, in much smaller capitals, is the legend: IN LOVING MEMORY, which bleeds into the first of the many flowers that surround a diagonal cross, which is in turn bisected by two overlying, touching hearts. Very large hearts. The top one (and the choice is itself odd for a Latin family, most uncharacteristically giving the wife, and a second wife at that, top billing over her husband) reads: MARGARIDA/ NOV. 30 1876/ JAN. 15,/ 1949. The second and lower heart reads: THOMAS/ IGNACIO/ DEC. 25, 1856/ JAN 8/ 1944. And as a final touch, there is a bouquet of plastic red roses in the hollow set aside in the base for such purposes.
Margarida. At last I had the name of my step-great-grandmother, whom I saw many times, but to whom I was never introduced. She was twenty years younger than her husband, but survived him by only five years. There was also one other curious note. My great-grandfather, who walked through life as if he were indeed a god, commanding the respect and unquestioned obedience of all his children, was, fittingly, born on Christmas Day.
Julian Silva is a fourth-generation Portuguese-American whose Azorean ancestors first settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1870s. His novel, The Gunnysack Castle, was first published by Ohio University Press in 1983. The second section of the Death of Mae Ramos, “Vasco and the Other” was originally published in 1979 in Writer’s Forum 6, University of Colorado. In 2007, Distant Music Two novels: Gunnysack Castle and The Death of Mae Ramos was published by Portuguese in the Americas Series, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Distant Music is the story of the Woods (anglicized Portuguese) and Ramos families and their descendants in California. In these narratives Julian Silva “celebrates not only the resilience of men and women confronted with failure but, even more important, he exposes the compromised morality of their achievement” (Portuguese in the Americas Series).