I come from a long line of anonymous dead. They led modest, respectable lives. They loved their families, practiced their religion to varying degrees and, after death, were buried in the Catholic cemeteries of the City of New York. They have submerged with barely a trace. It is my fate as well.
When my German-born grandfather died in 1933, he left my grandmother his share of a successful business and a fine house in Hollis, Queens. She said, “My life is over!” and then lived another 40 years. When she finally did die at age 91 after 10 years in a nursing home, the business had passed on to others. Her beloved house was gone. Her fine “things,” her china, her glassware, her furniture, had long been distributed among her children and grandchildren.
This once beautiful young mother of five had presided over a happy, placid and prosperous German-American household in the first third of the 20th century and had then experienced a pinched respectability for most of the rest of her life. By the time she was buried beside my grandfather in Saint John’s Cemetery in Queens, her children had been supporting her for years. My father remarked several times that when he went to the nursing home after the funeral to pick up her belongings everything fit in a small shopping bag.
Now, except for an occasional reference when my cousins and I try to puzzle out something about our parents, she seems almost forgotten. As far as I know, no one ever goes to visit her grave.
More than 30 years later, her last surviving child, my father, died at age 96. Like my grandmother before them, my father and my mother, who had died just two years before, had also enjoyed many fine things, good china, sterling silver, Waterford glassware and stylish clothes. Unlike her, they left small but tidy estates, having retired from the New York City Public School System with generous pensions and medical benefits.
As their vision, health and mobility declined and their ability to live independently became ever more attenuated, my parents would never confront the fact that so many of the “things” they had spent their lives lovingly assembling had become more a burden than a pleasure. Many were disintegrating before their eyes. My mother adamantly refused even to consider throwing things out. After she died, my father would not hear of throwing them out either. He even insisted on keeping her outmoded evening dresses.
To me it seemed self-delusional, but that was the way he wanted it. He was lucid to the day he died. I suppose those fine things represented who he and my mother had been together and what they had created between them. They probably brought back memories of his happy days, when he had youth and strength and the woman he loved.
Finally, he died. And now I, his 64-year-old son and executor, am in the process of breaking up their household. One modestly paid New York City teacher and another modestly paid assistant principal acquired in 69 years of marriage so much china, crystal and sterling, so many dresses, so many suits, so many other belongings that I cannot keep it all straight. I have thrown away the fine clothes. I have distributed my mother’s Waterford (it’s always your mother’s, not your father’s) to nieces and nephews. I have deferred some inevitable decisions to a later time.
Almost all of that which was so identifiably my parents’ is gone. The remainder will soon either be foisted off on reluctant relatives, thrown out, converted into cash or packed away in an attic for their grandchildren to deal with after I die. It all meant so much to them and to me, too. Their things are part of my past as well. As I struggle to throw out or give away as much as I can as fast as I can, part of my life history slips away as well.
But what else am I to do? Attics and basements are only so big, and mine are already filled with the accumulation from 30 years of my own marriage.
The dead don’t leave you right away. After we bury them, their scent lingers. As I sort through my father’s clothes six months after his death, I can still smell his cologne, his soap and his old man body odor. The cigar box that now holds his checkbooks and useful papers holds his familiar smell as well. When I open it, I still catch a whiff of him.
My father’s clothes bring to mind the pictures of him as a young man, handsome, athletic and always a dapper dresser. His sense of style carried on into his advanced old age. The night before he died, when we took him to dinner in a local diner, he was handsomely turned out in a canary yellow sweater and complementing slacks.
Within another year or so, my gentle, courteous and affectionate father, who was a loving husband, grandfather, uncle, brother and son, will for the most part be forgotten. The ripple from whatever splash he made will have subsided. In 50 years or so, except for some photographs, if even they remain, no one will be aware that he ever existed. He, who had such a zest for living, such vitality to the day of his death, who wanted desperately to go on living and see even his great-grandchildren grow up, will have disappeared. All those fine belongings that he so loved will be gone, as will his scent.
As I check pockets to be sure he hasn’t left anything important in them (being my ever orderly father, he hasn’t), it begins to sink in that we are next. There is no one left from that generation ahead of us. When we die, the process will start all over again. All the things my wife and I cherish, our good books, our fine china, furniture, houses, photographs and paintings, all the many things that we have acquired in our lives will be broken up, tossed out, distributed, given away or boxed and stashed in some attic until the dance begins again in the fourth or fifth generation.
My father and mother are buried in her Irish Catholic family’s grave in First Calvary Cemetery in Queens, the cemetery of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. This particular plot is almost full now.
When I was a child, my parents would join my mother’s brothers and their wives after a Sunday Mass before Christmas and again before Easter to decorate that grave site which then contained only my maternal grandparents. On that open hillside above the foul-smelling Newtown Creek, the weather seemed always to be gray, wet, windy and chilling. As was the custom on Sundays then, the men would be dressed in suits and ties, overcoats, and fedoras or homburgs. The women would be dressed in stockings and heels that sank into the mud. They wore fur coats to ward off the cold.
My uncles would tie a wreath or stake a floral piece on the grave. After a few silent prayers and perhaps a few tears, they would stand around in the cold and talk. My cousin and I would play guns or hide-and-seek among the tombstones. Eventually they would get back in the cars and drive around Old Calvary visiting other family graves that went back to the Civil War. Sometimes they would go out for lunch afterward.
For two young boys the whole day was exceedingly dull, even the guns and the hide-and-seek. We had to go through with it though, and to behave. It was an important family ceremony for my mother and her brothers. It continued until the last of them died.
That grave site now contains all those adults who came together to decorate it all those years. This December my cousin and I, both now in our 60s and the only descendants of the occupants, went to their grave to decorate it once again. Much more casually dressed, surrounded by the tombstones among which we had played, we repeated the old rituals of staking down a floral piece and saying some silent prayers. In that ground was one entire side of our family. We were standing over our grandparents, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, stored in boxes stacked under that grass. They were there, just a few feet away, but never to be seen again.
My cousin is younger than I and suffers from congestive heart failure. I have had my medical problems, too. Only he and I have any real connection to those who are buried there, and even we have no connection to the older family graves that our parents made a point to visit each time. When we die no one will visit any of them again. The disappearance of the generations in all those graves is almost complete.
My father died a firmly believing Roman Catholic. He would not allow the scandals, sexual or otherwise, in which the Church was embroiled to shake his faith or his commitment to the religion of his birth. He desperately wanted to have lived his life as a good man, hoped to go to heaven and there to meet my mother, his mother and father, and his brothers and sisters. His faith was simple and touching. To the end, he said his rosary at least once a day and went to Sunday Mass whenever he could. He was a man of faith who died in hope.
I, his son, do not have that unwavering certainty. I can’t see much beyond the hole in the ground where we put him or one where I expect my children to put me. I am not sure I care. Whether I die penniless like my grandmother or leave a modest estate like my father and mother doesn’t seem to matter much either.
Now that my professional life is over and our children grown, I often ask whether it makes any sense to keep pounding away. At times, I try to be content to have lived, to know that I have tried to try my best in life. I know that I will shuffle off to anonymity at some as yet indeterminate future date, like my father and his father before him. The ripples from my splash too will quickly subside. No one will remember me; the world will go on. At times I try to take some consolation in the knowledge that whatever I have done, or yet may do, will in some way drift ever so faintly through subsequent lives, just as the events, personalities and actions taken generations ago have informed my life in ways I have never known.
At other moments I am incredibly discontented. I am the son of a man who knew he was dying but couldn’t say it, who kept on wanting to live, to walk out of doors, to listen to tapes of the great books he could no longer read, and to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I, too, am restless to go on, to find new adventures, to keep contending, struggling to stay in the fray even if no one cares or wants me there. I don’t want to be consoled.
Perhaps my only role now is to live as well as I can until I stop. Insignificant that may be, but it is still a role. I walk in the cities and the woods. I write. I read. I try to relate and to give something to others. I am delighted to have had, and to have, family, friends, even enemies. I continue to lust for a breath of fresh air, for grass, for trees, for birds, for the sounds of the forest or city. I am approaching that time when I will join my now anonymous forbears. Until then I want to hope, as Tennyson says in his “Ulysses,” that “something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done.” But, in any event, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Paul Hundt, a retired attorney, lives in Larchmont, New York.