Wisconsin Review, Spring 2018
In memory of the unknown dead buried in this place.
Not even a sparrow falls to the ground
But what God
Matthew 10: 29-30
~ Cresson Union Cemetery, monument inscription
Union Cemetery sits at the top of the hill in Cresson, right off of Admiral Peary highway. It was founded in 1830, and in a town populated by mostly Catholics, was available to any Protestant needing a burial plot. Some older memorials have fallen over, others have sunk far below the grass level. The Cresson Cemetery Association has no records before 1950, nor knows where the records might be kept.
My grandmother hunched on the squat garden stool and carefully snipped away at the grass. With the tiny plot’s seedlings finally emerging, Grandma was intent on manicuring. It was an unseasonably hot day, and I was visiting for the Easter break. I helped her carry the water jugs from the car to the stoneless rectangle of land—they were the same gallon jugs we used to fill with spring water from St. Francis’ shrine, but now, they were a bit weathered, and just for our cemetery trips.
Cresson Union Cemetery houses many of my family members—most of whom died well before I was born. It also serves as the final resting place for many people who resided at the Lawrence Flick Tuberculosis Sanitarium. There is a decent area of the grounds dedicated to these nameless individuals—people who were apparently forgotten in the throes of TB outbreaks from 1913 to 1960. Some of the graves have a faded name, others only a number. Every once in a while a flower or two is left—a pop of color among the empty patch of land.
While Grandma landscaped Granddad’s fairly fresh grave, I roamed the grounds. By the age of thirteen, I knew exactly where everyone was. Great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles… even the baby. His little grave was the one I tended. There wasn’t a traditional marker, only a tiny patch of flowers in the ground near his mother, Marian. There were complications during the delivery, and the baby died shortly after he was born; Marian died a few days later. I suppose that’s why they weren’t buried together. If the baby had a name, we didn’t know it, but we knew he was five steps north of Marian’s grave, and then ten steps west. I had an intense fear that if I didn’t keep the little flowers up, the groundskeepers would try to bury someone else there and it saddened me to think of his miniature coffin being disturbed after so many years of rest.
Marian’s body has two markers: the headstone in Union Cemetery and the botched doorframe of my great-grandmother’s house. In the spring of 1936, when my granddad and his brothers tried to fit their sister’s coffin through the front door and into the parlor for the viewing, they discovered the casket was just too wide for the narrow passage. Grammy wanted her young daughter to be at home—shown in her own house—and she wasn’t budging for another solution. She told her boys they were not to tilt the casket, so taking off the doorframe was the only answer. My great-grandfather told his wife she was crazy; they would think of another solution. She walked away only to return with a sledgehammer. Wood splintered, plaster caved. Then, with the reverence of any queen’s funeral, Marian’s brothers and father carried her into the front parlor where Grammy set down the sledgehammer, opened the coffin, and then sat next to it, not moving, for two days. The door was haphazardly repaired. She kept its imperfections for as long as she remained in the house.
I sat my little gardening caddy next to the piece of land and knelt next to the grave that contained Marian’s son—my third-cousin—gone for over fifty years. I plucked weeds, extracted the dead flowers, and broke apart the earth to plant some yellow pansies. The ground was dry, rare for this mountain town. I stabbed my spade through the dirt and added a little water. Such a tiny parcel of land situated between the other graves. We had tried to put a tree there for him, but the cemetery groundskeepers wouldn’t think of it. “Too much to mow around already.” This was also why Grandma couldn’t get the stone she wanted for Granddad—it had to be flat for easier grounds maintenance.
Grandma shouted down to me, “Did you take some Miracle Gro with you, baby doll? Those flowers won’t last long otherwise.” She wiped her forehead with her sleeve and rubbed at her sore hands. She was working hard and had spent most of the winter itching to tend to the plot. We still had to wait awhile for the stone to go in, for the ground to settle.
Walking over my relatives’ graves, I crossed the grounds where the forgotten TB patients were buried, and paused. So many nameless; their only mark of existence, a number. My eyes burned and my throat tightened. I took a quick swig from my own St. Francis water jug as I made my way back up the hill to Grandma. “Here, baby.” Grandma scooped two mounds with her arthritic hands, and I cupped my palms to catch the soil. Her face was red, and her smile sincere. “You’re a sweet little thing, you know that?” She squeezed my hands with hers and cocked her head. Grandma understood me. Later that night I would be with my friends—playing flashlight tag, buying treats at James’ drugstore, looking through my sister’s Teen Magazines—but at that moment, I was where I needed to be.
I walked the dirt back down the hill and folded it into the ground. The soil welcomed the pretty pansies as I covered their roots and watered them. A cool breeze raised my head, and Marian’s grave caught my eye. Grandma said we would get to it another day, but it looked too sad to leave. Planting myself in front of her stone, I picked away at the weeds and dead flowers so that the word “Daughter” was visible at the bottom. Apparently, my great-grandfather was so distraught over her death, he wouldn’t recognize her as a wife or a mother. She was his daughter, and if he was paying for the stone, that’s how she would be remembered. Marian, as my grandma put it, “had to get married.” She was pregnant, and my great-grandfather would not forgive Harry McGonigle for the indiscretion. I often wonder what he would say today if he knew that Harry McGonigle and his second wife visited Marian’s grave on her birthday each year, placing pink tulips at the base of the stone. Would he find solace in Harry’s devotion to his first love? Or would he still curse the man who corrupted his baby? I traced the word “daughter” with my finger thinking of Marian—of Grammy’s doorframe, of the brothers carrying her casket, of leaving this world after only knowing its wonder for such a short time. Of the unknown.
Collecting my caddy, I dawdled back to Grandma. The sky was the most brilliant pink and tangerine that night. It was a sky of peace, renewal, and promise—the kind that reminds you of all things beautiful when life is not.
“Grandma, do you see this sky?” She was so hard at work that I thought she may have forgotten to look up. Grandma slowly lifted the water jugs.
“Well, look at that.” She stood to rub her knees and limped to the trunk, placing the cracked water jugs inside. “I haven’t seen a sky like that this early in the springtime in years. Did you finish planting your flowers? Want to get some ice cream?” I nodded and jumped in the front seat. Patsy Cline blaring on the radio, our hands still caked with dirt, we drove into the blazing sky that night—a springtime-summer drive that blanketed our silence like a thick balm.