ANCIENT BURIAL SITES: a memorial ramble
Cemeteries are not intrinsically depressing. There are those, like the famous one in Savannah, that are redolent with history and romance and as evocative of a melancholy beauty as any American site. My own favorites in California, harboring the remains of nineteenth century Portuguese immigrants, mostly fishermen, are in Mendocino City in the north, and Pescadero, just south of San Francisco, both with lovely grass-covered plots, once-glossy-black cast-iron fences now rusted, mossy headstones and a sense of living history. At least they were so when I last saw them a few decades past.
Hayward’s St’ Joseph’s Cemetery, on the other hand, is most emphatically depressing. It is, first of all, no longer a living entity – if one can ever apply the word “living” to land set aside exclusively for the interment of the dead. Its replacement, Holy Sepulcher, easily answers that question, for it is definitely a living concern. Its extensive and well-tended lawns sing hymns to eternity with the rather extravagant promise of perpetual care, of loving attention and enduring prosperity, despite recurring depressions and recessions. While poor Saint Joseph’s is quite dead. And unlike the bodies of those it shelters there has been no one to oversee its own proper interment. It has become simply derelict, what the law calls an “attractive nuisance,” something to be fenced off from would-be marauders – most ineffectively in this instance. Within eight feet of our parked car is a large hole dug out of the hillside directly beneath the ugly cyclone-link-fence that now completely surrounds the property. It is a hole big enough for any vigorous adult set upon mischief to crawl under with little difficulty and the only paradise the now abandoned cemetery promises is as a playground for vandals. And their handiwork is everywhere in evidence.
My first and only other visit to the place was sometime in the thirties when my grieving grandmother brought me. The surrounding hills were already turning brown, though the plot we had come to visit, shaded by a live oak, was still green with wild grass. Our arms were burdened with roses freshly cut from my grandmother’s garden, so it was probably Memorial Day, and if I had to fix a date, it would be May 31, 1937, the day before my tenth birthday.
The death of her husband the year before had transformed my grandmother into a conscientious grave visitor – a habit she did not pass on to this particular grandson, revere her memory though I do. The last time I saw my parents’ grave (or indeed, my grandmother’s) was the day my mother was buried. Nor do I in my travels make a practice of seeking out graveyards. I was once, in 1949, taken to see Karl Marx’s grave by my London landlady out walking her many dogs, but I was far more interested in her own peculiar eccentricities, her fondness, close to reverence, for this particular grave among them, than I was in the gloomy grave itself with its huge somber gray bust of the hairy philosopher. And except for those tombs in churches – in London, Stratford, and Alcobaça – I have never sought out the graves of my heroes. With one notable exception. I did in the spring of 1961 make a particular effort to visit the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. It proved a refreshing island of bright calm in the tumultuous and incessant traffic: an oasis of silence burnished by the relentless Roman sun. To my surprise and delight, I discovered some kind soul had preceded me and already left a fresh bouquet of anemones on Keats’s grave.
In that spring of 1937 St. Joseph’s Cemetery was on a country hillside, surrounded by other softly carpeted hills, instead of being smothered, as it now is, by suburban houses encroaching ever more cramped against its outside perimeter like some great leviathan intent upon swallowing what remains of the graveyard. The particular graves my grandmother and I had come to visit were all confined within a small compound bordered by an ornate black, cast-iron fence. The central granite stone identified the area as belonging to the Faria family, my grandmother’s mother and father certainly among those buried there, as well as her younger sister Maggie, who died from the typhoid she had caught nursing my grandmother. Maggie had been a Faria who married a Faria and her husband must also have been buried there, though he belonged to a different Faria family, for he too died prematurely, a few years after his wife, from the flu pandemic that came in the wake of the First World War, so that my grandmother’s household was then augmented by three orphans ranging in age from nine to fifteen.
Oddly I have no memory whatsoever of my grandmother that day leaving flowers on the site of the fondest of all her dead, my namesake, her dead son. Though I did not know it at the time, his grave was elsewhere, and I have no recollection of visiting any other graves than those set aside for the Farias before we moved on to Holy Sepulcher, where her husband was buried. It was a plot I took a proprietary interest in, not as a possible future resting place for myself, for at ten I was still invincibly immortal and looked upon graves as I looked upon my grandmother’s other antiques, her ornate, jewel-encrusted book of tintypes and the exotic shadow-box frame with its floral still life, each flower made out of a different person’s hair wrapped about curved wires and seeded with tiny beads of glass, as part of my heritage and the familial inheritance.
So intense is my memory of that original visit I had little doubt, that now, in another century, I would be able to find the Faria plot without a guide or a map, for neither was available. My recently-widowed sister, my younger brother and I had first to call at the parish house of All Saints’ Church to get the key, leaving a driver’s license as security. We had come, not for sentimental reasons, but to find answers to questions we had all failed to ask our parents and grandparents while they were still around to answer. The questions were provoked by one of my brother’s half-Irish grandsons who had been given an assignment to make a family tree as far back as he could trace it. The number of questions we could not answer for him was shameful. What, for example, had been my Great-grandfather Faria’s first name? When precisely had he died? What had been the name of my Grandfather Silva‘s mother? And what were the names of my Grandfather Smith’s parents? And since there was no living person who could answer any of these questions we took recourse to the cemetery.
The moment we entered, it was obvious our search was not going to be an easy one. Vandals had preceded us. In the entire graveyard there were no more than four graves with even remnants of cast-iron fences and the one closest to being complete was not a Faria. The reason for their absence seemed obvious. Very few people, even the psychologically damaged, would want someone else’s tombstone sitting in their gardens, and the vandals have so far been content to tumble those, snapping off six-inch thick slabs of granite as though they were peanut brittle. But almost any suburban garden might be enhanced by the addition of an antique cast-iron fence. Not only were the fences more decorative than the austere tombstones, they were also easier to transport. So there was no way now that I’d ever be able to locate the family plot we’d come in search of.
The plot had still been intact in the late seventies, when my sister had accompanied my father and mother, all armed with trowels, to bury the ashes of my grandmother’s youngest sister, Sarah, in the family plot (a criminal act in itself, but certainly, in this instance, a victimless crime). Sarah, who had lived into her late nineties spent the last seventy-plus years of her life as a ward of the state and very few even knew of her existence. The only time I had seen her was when I was eleven or twelve, the first person of my generation to learn of her existence. My grandmother drove me to a large public institution in Sonoma without first telling me the purpose of our journey. Only after we entered the gate did she explain who it was we had come to see, leaving me both shocked and eagerly curious. Sarah at the time was almost fifty, a bumbling overgrown child with her gray hair clipped short. There was just enough of an unmistakable family resemblance to make her seem in my eyes even more grotesque than she might otherwise have. She was both feisty and foul-mouthed, and when my grandmother admonished her for her shameful language, Sarah stamped her feet, shook her large hips, and began to wail like a three year old caught in some misdemeanor; and when one of the other inmates, a man also in his fifties who seemed even more closely related with the same kind of wizened, infantile face, tried to comfort her, she pounded his arms with both fists until he too began to cry. The scene seemed altogether surreal to me, the beautiful, manicured grounds filled with hundreds of grown-ups who weren’t grown-up at all, just children who had lingered at a party that had, for some inexplicable reason, gone on for decades; children who had long ago left all the magical charm and beauty of childhood far behind them, but for some reason never quite caught up with their bodies. Like so many Hansels and Gretels forever lost in their enchanted forest.
“I think it best she‘s left with her own kind,” my grandmother said on the drive back to San Lorenzo. “My visits only seem to upset her.” And to my knowledge, she never again saw her sister.
When, long after my grandmother’s death, Governor Reagan closed the state institutions and sent the inmates back to their various localities, Sarah was moved from one nursing facility to another, sometimes disconcertingly paired with a roommate whose disability was not the least mental. As next of kin, my father did occasionally visit her, reporting that she was still as feisty and foul-mouthed as ever, but hardly senile. Her mental capacity was always limited, but whatever small amount had been her allotment, remained hers to the end.
But the burial of her ashes alongside her closest family had occurred so long ago my sister could not remember in what part of the cemetery it had been, and without the guidepost of the iron fence we were left to our own devices.
The standard grave seemed to consist of a four-coffin plot, surrounded by a low granite wall, no more than ten to twelve inches high and ornamented at each corner with a turban-like dome rising another ten-to-twelve inches. The whole plot was then carpeted with an oppressively heavy granite slab approximately eight by twelve feet, with the four separate graves sometimes indicated on top with the simplest of bas-relief outlines and some kind of legend, the most common being: Father, Mother, Husband and Wife, with no other reference to their names other than the family name carved in the middle of the front granite wall, in the first instances, E M Nunes. Without the addition of Christian names or the dates of deaths, the entire site seemed so impersonal as to be virtually anonymous.
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 1860s. 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). Julian Silva’s latest novella, Move Over, Scopes and Other Writings, was published in 2011 by University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.