Your Mother's Mother
Note: I wrote this years before I ever decided to "write" anything. A thing happened and my need to document that thing pushed me to put words on paper in a desperate hope to capture its importance. It was the first time I'd had that sort of frantic need to do so. Years later, thousands and thousands of words later, I'm kind of a snob about what I post up for the world to read. But this original thing is important on its own. Some events are just solid like that, the words used to describe them are secondary. So I share this with you now. This sweet and important thing, with all the clunkiness and wordiness of a not-yet-a-writer's first effort. Thank you so much for reading. <3
We had been planning our trip for a couple of months. Me and my mom try to make it to New York to visit our cousin Gregg at least once a year. We had planned this as a typical visit to the city to eat and drink and walk the streets. We never imagined that it would also encompass a trip to an unmarked grave at a cemetery on Long Island.
My mother’s mother was from New York and had lived in Brooklyn until she met a sailor at a U.S.O. dance during the war, got married and moved south to Virginia. She had three brothers and one sister. The sister, Dottie, was our Cousin Gregg’s mother. Dottie had similarly left New York as a young woman in the forties and had moved first to New Jersey and then to Florida to raise her family. Their brothers had made earlier escapes during the war. New York City on its own is an electric place to visit but even more so for us. When we walk the streets, especially with Gregg who knows more family history than the rest of us, we are walking the streets that our people walked. We are time-travelers. Gregg easily points to the brownstones where our aunts and uncles lived, the high rise where my grandmother took dance lessons, the church where the wife of our New York State Supreme Court Justice uncle made a spectacle of herself in a bawdy red dress during the 1920s while he was giving a speech to the congregation because she suspected him of philandering. Another uncle who was a singer with the Metropolitan Opera died suddenly on that great stage. My great great great grandfather was the first Metropolitan Chief of Police for New York City. For people who have never actually lived in Manhattan ourselves, we claim great ownership to its streets and its stories.
My great-grandmother’s story is a sad one. Filmed as a grand spectacle and adapted for both stage and screen the greatest stars of the era would have fought for the roles. Careers would be made for the writers and directors and producers of such a drama. How can one life’s story be so compelling? Variety would ask its readers, as ballots would be sent to members of the Academy. On Oscar night when the cast and crew would bound their way to the stage in jubilant embrace the world would finally understand what had happened those many years ago. Of course, none of that would ever happen. Because like most of the grand suffering that exists in the world my great-grandmother’s story would go untold for years and years and years. Only her children would know and then one day her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Such is the nature of suffering. It is usually a quiet and lonely place.
The word “great-grandmother” typically connotes a grand remove but in our family where we refer to the dead as much as we do the living it is really a much closer relationship than the word would imply. It is my mother’s grandmother. The same relation that my daughter has to my mother. For my mother, it is her mother’s mother. Put in those terms you get a better idea of the tightness of the ties that bind us together. In our family, mother’s rule, and the idea of your mother’s mother is sacrosanct.
My great-grandmother, Ethel Walling, came from a very moneyed, very Catholic family in New York. She was in her early thirties and was training to be a nun, quiet, simple, and loving. She had not yet taken her final vows and was working as a nursing sister at St. Luke’s hospital in the late 1910s when she met John Maxwell Richardson. Considerably older than her, he had already lost a wife and children to the influenza epidemic. He was from South Carolina and was a scoundrel by anyone’s definition. It was a whirlwind courtship. She left the convent and they started a family. Displeased with her decision to marry this man her people disowned her. Without her family’s money and resources she was wholly dependent on him for her existence. They had five children, three boys and two girls. And then it all went to hell.
The children never called John Maxwell Richardson “father” or “daddy.” They called him Major. He had been a major in the military and the one picture I have ever seen of him hangs on my mother’s wall. It is a picture of him in full military uniform around the turn of the 20th century. He stands with his legs slightly apart and points a pistol into the air. He is small and compact. He wears glasses. He is handsome. He has a satisfied look on his face. If all you knew of the man were this picture, it would not be hard to guess that he was an asshole.
In pretty short order, after their children were born, Major abandoned them all. He would occasionally send money for food or rent but as this was the height of the depression Ethel was forced to return to work as a nurse to try to make whatever money she could to feed and clothe her children. Left alone for long stretches while she was at work social services was often called. At the time there was little sympathy for a working woman. But Ethel worked and Ethel fought and Ethel kept her children together. It was a poor life and a hard life but it was a life filled with brothers and sisters and love, all of it without Major.
The stories of his parental failures are multitude. An example: once he sent David, the oldest child on an errand. He was to deliver money to a woman in Harlem. When David got there he realized the woman was Major’s “wife” and that they had several children of their own. David had never known this. One can only guess at what possible reason Major would have to send a child on such an errand. To have to deliver money to your father’s mistress when your own family was in desperate need of it. Easy proof that some people are simply mean.
The winter of 1942 Ethel’s five children were scattered like this: the oldest boys off in the war, the youngest boy in Georgia with Major and the two girls in Brooklyn with their mother. The oldest girl, Margie, was my grandmother. She was fourteen. The youngest girl, Dottie, was twelve. My grandmother had been attending St. Anne’s, a Catholic boarding school out of the city. Dottie had also been attending St. Anne’s. A momma’s girl who couldn’t bear to be separated from her devoted mother, Dottie repeatedly ran away and back to Brooklyn. Because of this she was asked not to return to school. It was in their Brooklyn apartment during the Christmas holiday of 1942 that Ethel became sick. She lay in bed, coughing and in obvious pain. Home for Christmas break, Margie and Dottie nursed their mother for three days until they finally became frightened and called a family friend who was a physician. Hearing her symptoms he ordered them to call an ambulance right away. Ethel was taken to the hospital. The girls stayed alone in the apartment for several days. On Christmas Eve, 1942, Ethel Walling died of pneumonia. She was fifty years old.
Ethel’s brother Franklin had remained close with his sister though the rest of the family had long ago disowned her. He took the children with him after Ethel’s death, leaving behind the family dog. Home for what was supposed to be Christmas with their mother, Dottie and Margie instead attended their mother’s funeral. She was buried on December 28, 1942. For Dottie and Margie, who were children, the event was a blur of sadness and confusion. They were taken back to the apartment that had been destroyed by their poor little dog and allowed to gather just a few things to take with them to Uncle Franklin and Catherine’s where they would now live. One of Dottie’s best-loved possessions was a little stuffed dog that her mother had given her as a small child. She was not allowed to bring it with her. It was thrown out, cruel Aunt Catherine having stated that proper young ladies don’t play with such things.
Such was the state of the life they were now to lead. One of harsh realities and little compassion. One of isolation from each other and the difficulties of being an outsider in another person’s home. Hard lessons at any age, doubly hard in the wake of the death of your mother. Two little girls cast to the wind with nothing left to bind them but their memories of their mother and each other. In all of the distress and confusion of their mother’s death and its aftermath it was never noted by any of her children where their mother was buried. All that was known was that it was a bitterly cold day and they had to drive far to get there.
My grandmother Margie died in 1976 at the age of 47. She died at an age where her children weren’t quite old enough to grasp what exactly their mother had been through as a young girl. She never talked about it; it was a private pain. All they knew was that every Christmas Eve Margie was sad and would call her sister Dottie on the phone. The Christmas tree was usually tossed out Christmas day. My aunt Dottie passed away in 2005 at the age of 74. Throughout her life it was a firmly expressed wish that she find her mother’s resting place. Unlike my grandmother, she had lived long enough to share these stories with her children and nieces. It was Dottie who began the search.
For years she had tried to access the proper records which would point to where Ethel was buried. They had had no luck with obtaining a death certificate. Similarly, they were thwarted from learning where her Brooklyn diocese typically buried its parishioners. A week before our regularly scheduled trip to New York to visit Gregg I got an email from my Mom. It was a forwarded message from her sister, my Aunt Mary. This is what it said:
I will send you a copy of Ethel's death certificate that I just got today. She had chronic myocarditis and bronchopneumonia and died in Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. She was buried in St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, NY on Dec. 28, 1942. I don't know how close to NYC or Brooklyn that is. Most of the rest of the information is basic. Just thought you'd like to know. Talk to you later.
And that was it. That was everything. My aunt Mary had gotten a free two week trial to ancestry.com and the answer to an old and painful mystery had fallen into her lap. Lost for 65 years, Ethel was now found. I called my mother from the pasta aisle in the Food Lion where I had been picking up supper for my own family. We now had a much more important reason for our trip to New York.
Me and mom and Gregg piled into his Volvo at the midtown parking garage and pointed our way to Long Island. Farmingdale’s name was easy to understand as St. Charles Cemetery was a vast expanse of flatness that had clearly been farmland once. Acres and acres of flat. I have never been in a cemetery that rivals it in space and scope. Even being from Virginia where we have our share of epic cemeteries, whole cities named for Civil War battles and the dead that they left behind, all are dwarfed by the scale of St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale New York. It is the cemetery where members of the three Catholic diocese of Brooklyn New York are buried, and there are a whole lot of Catholics in Brooklyn.
We stopped at the welcome center in the cemetery. We were surprised when the woman recognized Gregg from a previous phone call. It was so busy there with people coming and going from all directions and three funerals taking place at that very moment. She went to the back room and with surprising speed returned with a little blue index card, the corners of which were tattered and bent. It was the grave registration card for Ethel Walling. It stated that the owner of the grave was Franklin Walling, her brother. It had been him who had purchased her plot all those years ago. She pulled out a little map and circled section 9. She stated that Ethel was buried in section 9, row L, plot 263. She wrote down the name of the person buried next to her as a means of finding our way because Ethel’s plot was unmarked. With little hope in her voice and a sympathetic smile, she wished us luck.
As we left the small Welcome House we braced ourselves for a long afternoon. As far as the eye could see were tall granite grave markers, shoulder to shoulder, no room between them. Some were literally touching each other they were so tightly packed in. I tried taking pictures of the scene so I could convey the scale to people at home but it was impossible. No picture I took could capture the immensity of it, the endlessness, the forever. There were at least two-hundred different sections and we were looking for section 9. In section 9 there were no stand-up tombstones just flat granite markers. The one we were looking for didn’t even have that. No marker. So we were looking for the flat granite marker next to an empty space, the empty space being our goal. Section 9 started with row “A” and continued into the triple letters. We were looking for row “L.”
Gregg started to drive. The roads snaked all around and very quickly I had lost track of where the woman had told us to go. After a couple of turns we were all surprised to look up and see a sign stating we were in “Section 9.” He drove along for a bit and then decided that we should just go ahead and get out and see what we could come up with. Everything was flatness and cold. There was a handful of outstanding oak trees scattered about. There were no upright stones; here all the markers lay on top of the ground. Gregg pulled to a stop and I got out of the car. They were still adjusting their coats and closing the doors when I walked down the row next to where we had just parked. I passed a few markers and doing the math in my head realized that I was on row L. “Huh,” I thought. I walked down a few more and understood I was in the 260s. “You’re kidding me…” I realized I was talking out loud. I stopped, looked at the ground in front of me and looked at the marker beside it. “I found it.” I never looked up as I called out to Mom and Gregg who had never advanced past the car.
They stood motionless, still in the act of buttoning up their coats just looking at me. We had steeled ourselves for a lengthy search. This was to be an all day thing. They were still putting on their scarves and maneuvering them into the fashionable knots of the proper New Yorker. But it was true, we had found it. We were there. I had walked right to it, actually, having been pushed, maybe pulled. Gregg put the car where it needed to be, I got out, walked down one row and only one row, and I stopped right where I needed to stop. I was in section 9, on row L, at plot 263. I was standing at the grave of my great-grandmother. A grave that was unmarked and had not been visited for 65 years, a grave that had been searched for for decades. This was the place where 65 years before two young girls stood in devastation wearing their best dresses and wool coats and watched as their mother was lowered into the ground. This cold spot of ground in the middle of nowhere when they should have been warm with new Christmas things.
It was not hard to imagine what it looked like then. March is still winter on Long Island and everything was brown and dry. The handful of trees was old enough that they would have been there when that sad funeral had taken place. It was windswept and gray. It was a picture of pain and loneliness that on that day, in that place, became a living and breathing thing. There are few times in life where you can stand in a place and know for absolutely certain that others that you have known have stood there in similar circumstances. This was one of those times. I did not know Ethel. But I knew Dottie. I knew her and I loved her deeply. And though I was younger than my own youngest child when my grandmother died, I certainly know her. I know her through my mother and her sisters and through the looks on their faces when they talk about her. That love for a mother that only gets larger with time. My Mom and I and Gregg were all at a funeral and we knew it.
We are an industrious people so we got to work. Around the corner from the cemetery was a Home Depot. As we drove out of that large and lonely place I sat in the back seat and thought of my grandmother. I imagined her in the back of a big old car with her little sister Dottie sitting next to her. What were they thinking? Were they holdings hands? How stunned they must have been. Did they know what was coming next? Of course, I knew what was coming next for them and a lot of it was not pleasant. I felt guilty that those little girls drove out of that place not knowing their fate while from the safety of the future I did. I knew the ending even though it was their story, not mine.
We set out on the task of making Ethel’s place look beautiful. When in mourning, even for someone you never really knew, it is always helpful to have a task and our task was flowers and grass seed. We bought three sets of hyacinth bulbs, a pink, a white and a purple, and a blue hydrangea, my grandmother’s favorite, the official flower of the women of our family. We bought a small bag of grass seed and a trowel and a small rake. Back at the cemetery we took turns keeping watch for the cemetery landscaping crew because we felt certain that what we were doing was against a lot of rules. On our hands and knees we planted the hyacinths in a circle around the hydrangea. We roughed up the dirt all around and liberally scattered the grass seed.
At the last minute we remembered the real reason we had come. Gregg went back to his car. He returned with a sealed 8x10 plastic sheet inside of which were pictures. They were the pictures of David and George and Danny and Margie and Dottie. All in black and white and all when they were young and beautiful and alive. We poked a hole through the corner of the plastic and staked the pictures into the ground. We returned the children to their mother. That saintly, long-mourned woman who had rested in anonymity for 65 years. We had found her, we had planted flowers, we had celebrated her and now we will get a marker with her name on it so we will always know where she is.