Better Late than Forever

Written in response to: Write a story including the phrase “Better late than never”.... view prompt

2 comments

Fiction

Reflecting on relatives and other things that are not just sitting somewhere by themselves but rather are woven into a memory sheet which is faded now. It has faded either over generations - perhaps two hundred years of them - or it has slipped away during my lifetime, the years of which do not matter. 

That thinking about pasts has become my main activity, my only purpose in life now. But don’t get me wrong. 

There may still be other things I want to do, but as long as reflection still looks me directly in the eyes, I will never be able to turn away. This is not Medusa’s story, despite the presence of granite in what lies below, I mean, what follows. 

What follows is my story, kind of. Or it might be our story.

One of our stories.

——————-

My story began by accident. I was out for a late spring walk in Brunswick, a town of about twenty thousand inhabitants on the coast of Maine. Brunswick (not its real name, of course) is a place that makes you think, it’s like there’s something in the air or the water that some people thrive on. It might be the geographical location or the history of the town, but it’s unclear how it works. How it affects the ones who notice. I was walking not far from Bowdoin College, not far from King George’s Pines, not far from the cemetery whose name I’ve forgotten. 

Lest you get the wrong idea, let me make it clear that I am neither morbid nor depressed. I like Brunswick and I like to walk. Sometimes I end up walking through the college campus and from there it’s only a few steps to the cemetery. There are some interesting people buried here, but since I’m ‘from away’, and thereby am not a real Mainer, none of my long-departed relatives are interred here. When I walk through this cemetery, I feel safe, free from the guilt I feel when visiting family plots. 

It took me a long time to figure out how that guilt came about.

The people here where I live are all strangers to me, except by name or fame. They do not call to me to join them for that very reason. Their graves came into my life quite late. Maybe this has something to do with why I do not gawk at their resting places, nor do I work up fake tears and sadness. I am simply here to observe, to take note. 

While walking, slowly, in a somewhat timeless fashion, I read what the stones, mostly marble and granite, say about them. Although I write nothing down, I take note of date of birth and date of death for each slab. Sometimes I am thrilled to see how long a person lived during the nineteenth century. Other times there is a mournful moment if a very small child’s stone appears. The percentage of infant deaths years ago was so high. I used to know it, but have forgotten. I doubt there was any record of the stillborn and miscarried. Why bother?

Some of the headstones identify the individual beneath them as a son, a daughter, a wife, a husband. Some mention veteran status or simply show having served with a rippling flag. Others have a line from a poem or a quote from the deceased. Those are the worst, because usually a person six feet under isn’t going to say “I loved but once…” or “Do not fret, for I am at peace” or “Remember me, when this you see.” One has to wonder who selected the inscription.

Seriously, though, that I and you dialogue is quite macabre. An I who can no longer speak, addressing an anonymous you. It was the latter, the creepy first person affirmation on a gravestone, that gave me real pause a while back. I was visiting my parents’ graves. It’s a rare visit, to be honest. Guilt.

My parents taught me to honor the past and its people. To honor people whose names were written in stone. People who were somehow tied to me by family DNA or by marriage. People whose stories even my parents were beginning to forget, but whom I needed to meet. So I have to do as they said, even when the persons beneath the surface are total strangers. Trying to create connections that aren’t painful because we never met. It’s the ones I knew, or my parents knew, the ones whose blood I share, who make me wary. It’s the guilt, the feeling that I owe them more than I’m giving.

On this occasion, my gaze strayed from my parents’ spot, turning off to the left where there was a lack of landscaping, yet the dry grass allowed the visitor to see horizontal stones with no vertical indicator of any sort. They resembled a path, but a path would have been out of place there. I stepped near, oddly cautious. Then I saw an inscription on a headstone:

I worked my fingers to the bone.

I crocheted, sewed, wove. 

I needed a break. 

I’ll be back.

It should have been impossible to make the connection, but I did nevertheless. My memory for names and places is quite good. If only it weren’t. I also have studied enough to know what that era was like. The 1800s. Where to start? Clearly the woman whose name was engraved on one stepping stone had been waiting for me and clearly she was not letting me leave until I learned the story behind her first person epitaph.

(I was inclined to laugh at the image of fingers worked to the bone, given her condition underground.)

I wrote down the story as best I could, trying to get all the details.

The woman was my great grandmother.

While alive, she had sewn most days until her eyes got weak and weepy from candlelight.

She had a handmade loom for her lap, and for when she could purchase the wool. Any earnings were always used for necessities and buying new material to keep working. A never-ending story. A long story, and also quite monotonous. After what seemed like a long time, and might have been, it was time to leave. There were important things to do in Brunswick and the drive back was about eight hours.

Once I was back, I felt restless and had to go rummaging around in the basement for something that had no name and something I’d never seen before. Funny, I’d just watched a youtube video with artist Cas Holmes as she talks about her people, the Romani or Roma. Cas refers repeatedly to her great grandparents and how they loved their gypsy life. How did she know about my conversation with my great grandmother?

I found the old, very old box. Round, probably a hatbox. It was jammed into a battered cardboard box taken from the cellar of my mother’s house, which was always my mother’s and my father’s house, and therefore was also my house. Our house. It had been pure chance that the dusty, crumbly object had survived. Most of the things in that house had not.

Inside the box with a dingy, flowery paper adhered to it, was a folded paper, like letters used to be folded when people still used to write them. On it were written in careful yet youthful cursive and dated, these words: I worked my fingers to the bone. I crocheted, sewed, wove. I needed a break. I’ll be back.

The date, after careful calculation, meant that great grandmother was perhaps eighteen or nineteen when she wrote that.

Life had not been easy for her, obviously. Even when she was only eighteen.

Then I read on. The piece of paper was larger than it had appeared at first. My great grandmother was explaining now how she had gotten a position as seamstress for the town dentist. She liked his wife, who was kind to her. Then the wife died, coughing.

My great grandmother did not lose her position. The dentist needed her. Maybe there was nobody to do the housework, so the seamstress worked at that as well.

They were married two years after he became a widower. He was well-to-do. He was a lot older than she was. It didn’t matter because both accepted the new arrangement. The poor seamstress then moved up in the social rankings, because she was the dentist’s wife. Somebody else could do the sewing and mending, because she was the lady of the house.

Until he - my great grandfather - died and she had nothing again. Just some sombre pieces of furniture from the office, some tools for exploring patients’ dentures, and a son about five years old. A young widow.

And so my great grandmother began to live off of the strength and agility of her hands again. She began to work very hard because she had a son to bring up. Her eyes weakened, like her heart. Nevertheless, she lived a modest life and in time came to manage a very profitable seamstress business. The wealthy ladies paid well. 

Her son, my grandfather, went off then to another town and married. She still sewed, because she did not want to depend on him for support. He had his own family, after all. She worked her fingers with yarn and thread until she could not see to do it anymore. Today people find out what’s wrong, some have eye surgery. Not then. Not her. She quietly could not see, and thus put down her sewing needle, then folded her pale, thin, papery fingers. I imagined this, and also imagined that she looked like she was posing for her son the photographer.

Mary Pamelia, nobody ever made a photograph of you. At least I never found one. Until you told me your story, through your little journal, you were merely a name. Did you ever own anything? Did it all get thrown away? 

No, nothing of you remains, except your headstone. There is, however, a huge portrait in a huge, expensive, wooden frame of your husband. I have it now. It’s in my basement. He looks quite majestic, but that’s natural. He was a dentist, after all. I have some of his dental tools. They’re not sterilized any more.

Your work, just a handful of pieces, might in a museum now. I have hope regarding that because I found a note about it being donated. It was written by my mother. Works of art, people must say, if they really are displayed for public viewing as I like to imagine. Too bad I don’t know exactly what the works are. Embroidery? Tatting? Needle lace? Too bad I don’t know what museum the pieces might be in. My mother wasn’t an expert on museums and might have thought there was only one in the whole world. However, the internet will help me locate the pieces quickly, if they did make it into an exhibit.

There must have been so things produced by your hands. Many, never counted. Working one’s fingers to the bone requires many hours. It’s not something I like to think about. Not ready yet. This conversation is going to be a long one.

She is back, my great forgotten grandmother. She seems to be here, in Brunswick, not many hours away, underground. She is also not silent. In me. She is in me, in my thoughts, trying to be remembered.

Better late than never. Better late than forever having bony fingers, sore and callused. Better late than forever being forgotten.

My great grandparents were not like Cas Holmes’, traveling long distances in caravans and ultimately crossing the Atlantic. Maybe mine came from somewhere else, but the threads of that labyrinth are lost.

Is it too late? It will take an eternity to track down Mary Pamelia with the English-sounding surname that was really anglicized Dutch, but nobody knew that. I can take credit for that discovery, but it’s not enough. Also, I urgently need to find out how something written by a young woman, folded up and hidden away, ended up inscribed on her headstone. 

The journey to Mary Pamelia might be longer than anticipated, and I am, as they say, up in years. For that reason, in case I get distracted or can’t get back, I want to leave this bit a writing here. I’ll fold it up carefully and put it next to my great grandmother’s paper. Maybe three generations from now a great granddaughter will find it, although it’s unlikely, because I have nobody around who will want this old box. Me, my words, crammed in with anonymity. Below is what I want people to read when they find me in the cemetery.

My epitaph:

I worked my fingers to the bone.

I too crocheted, sewed, read, wept. 

Then I needed a break from being alone. 

I’ll be back. 

I have nowhere else to be.

The question is how to get the words from paper to stone like great grandmother did. Also, how to make them fit on a little rectangle. 

December 25, 2021 03:06

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2 comments

Michael Regan
18:19 Dec 27, 2021

A lovely story. I often visit cemeteries when on vacation - they are a great way to connect with the history of a place.

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Kathleen March
00:21 Dec 29, 2021

Yes, I often go when in Galicia, because stones have 2 last names and the local burial sites are documentation of residents. I see the stones as pages in an old book, and I love books.

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