Union Cemetery

Union Cemetery 

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.



If only I could nudge you from this sleep.

There’s a heartbreaking, but beautiful poem by Theodore Roethke that’s been circling in my mind for some time now called “Elegy for Jane.” The sentiments of the speaker, a teacher, could very well match my own. Because it’s an elegy and also begins with the subtitle, “My student, thrown from a horse,” the outcome is clear. Once a sweet little “wren” flitting about, bringing joy and laughter into the lives around her, Jane left this world too soon. By the end, the poem shifts attention away from Jane and onto the speaker where he contemplates why he’s standing at her fresh grave—what right does he have to mourn like this when he is neither a spouse nor a parent? He’s just a teacher. And he’s at a loss identifying these feelings.

The speaker may not understand, but I do. When you’re training for this profession, nobody ever tells you how much you’re going to love them. Or that many will suffer unspeakable tragedies. Or that many will die.

I thought it would get easier, but it doesn’t. I stood at the casket tonight of a man who died of a heroin overdose, but underneath the mortician’s makeup, I saw a shadow of the boy who barreled into class ready to derail every lesson and tried to charm me into, well, anything but British literature; the kid whose leg shook each football game day because he just couldn’t wait to charge the field; the baseball player who screamed the lyrics of “Buttercup” and rallied the whole team, whether there was a win or a loss. My student. Gone.

Looking around the funeral home, there they were. My kids, only now adults. So many approached, wondering if I remembered them. Of course I do. Some apologized for not keeping in touch. It’s okay. Some apologized for treating me like shit all those years ago. That’s okay too. I wanted their faces to comfort me, but they didn’t. I steadied myself so as to not shake their shoulders and beg them to be safe—beg them not to be the next casket I cry over. Their older, wiser eyes looked like they had seen a lot as well. They were different eyes than the ones I dried at another autumn funeral 15 years ago. Another classmate, another drug overdose. She was 16, and my first student death.

It’s a matter of numbers, really. The more saturated my personal student population, the more likely I am to witness tragedy. But I’m 19 years in, and I’m tired. I’m tired of waking up on weekend mornings to see #RIP all over my social media. I’m tired of my kids getting hit by drunk drivers—suffering life-altering brain injuries and paralysis. I’m tired of motorcycle accidents, suicides, gunshots, and drug overdoses. I’m tired of holding the hands of parents I once laughed with at Back to School Night, relaying my condolences, when I know they will never be happy again.

What was once an unexpected tragedy is now a ritual. I hear the news, I sort through the e-mails, texts, and Facebook messages from my graduates, I call my two best friends, also teachers—also shaken to the core because this is their kid too. We meet in the English office the next morning, walk into my room to stare at the collage of that particular graduating class, and make plans. Jason will drive, Rachel and I will wear the funeral outfits we always wear, we’ll get coffee beforehand. We will immerse ourselves in our current students to ameliorate the sting and try to talk about anything else, all the while preparing ourselves. Another funeral home, another tiny card with a prayer or poem on the back, another casket filled with high school memorabilia. Another goodbye.

As Roethke points out, it’s complicated. Teachers are charged with guiding, instructing, and caring for kids at an intensely vulnerable and formative time in their lives. It’s a huge responsibility and one I’ve never taken lightly. But, at the end of each year, as I let them go, I’m forced to remind myself that they’re not really mine. They have their own moms, just like I have my own son. But that doesn’t make any of this easier. Tonight I said goodbye to one of my 2235. A man who left this world far too soon. A child who wasn’t mine, but also was—at least for one year, 48 minutes each day.

Continuing Education

I have a graduate who infuriates me with his social media activity. A former U.S. Marine, he’s known to post pictures of his favorite gun, his achievements at the shooting range, and memes that taunt his liberal friends. His sense of humor, not always funny. I’ll give him this though—his wit is often satirical in nature, and many, to put it kindly, have a very hard time understanding satire. Having said that, his posts are enough to drive me to drink. He’s one of my graduates, after all—one of my kids. I can remember having sincere conversations with him about standing up for what is right, defending those who are innocent and weak, and loving this country. He has seen a lot—he’s been to places ordinary citizens would never dare venture in their worst nightmares and has encountered situations that would make most of us hide from the world for the rest of our lives. He hasn’t had it easy.

Last night, while multitasking poetry submissions, London excursion research, and DNC highlights, I came across a beautiful Facebook post from Luke. These kinds of sentiments are rare, so when they pop up, I always take a minute to see what he has to say. It was about love, and beauty—holding on and letting go. How there are aspects of life that, try as we might, we just can’t put behind us. The subject of the post was ambiguous. I wasn’t certain if he was talking about a girl, a friend, or even his country, but the intention was clear. We all want kindness, compassion, and love in our lives. It is the human condition that connects us. And I cried.

I am the liberal daughter of Republicans. Feminist? Yes. Bra burner? Don’t put it past me. I do despise them, after all. My parents are moderate and support many of the social issues I also embrace; so while we disagree on many things, I think when it comes down to it, we agree upon a lot as well. Growing up, they taught me to think for myself—to be true to my heart and not let anyone sway my beliefs, including them. I’ve devoted my life to standing up for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the voiceless, and maybe he doesn’t realize it, but my dad is the one who taught me that. He spent his career locking up bad guys—really bad guys. The kind who send bombs, anthrax, and child pornography through the mail—sick bastards who hurt children and prey on the innocent. During the attacks on 9/11, the Postmaster General asked my dad not to retire, as he had planned—to stay on as Chief Postal Inspector of the country and bring enemies to justice. So, he did. As a little girl, I didn’t understand what being a Postal Inspector entailed; I thought he was a mailman who carried a badge. Why would I think differently? My dad never, ever brought his work home with him so family dinner conversations were about school, friends, and activities. As I grew older, I started paying attention from afar. My dad was major. Ultimately, I learned that there are different ways to defend those in need, and sometimes those doing the defending have different beliefs.

I’ve unfriended and blocked a handful of graduates that have disappointed me—the misogynists, xenophobes, racists, sociopaths, anti-Semites, and homophobes. There aren’t many, but they absolutely suck. Shame on them for having the privilege of learning about diversity, understanding, and love from a district that values character education and then spreading hatred in this world. Many are not so fortunate. There are also those I “hide” from my newsfeed, and I have various reasons for using this feature. I tend to filter the Debbie Downers, the constant body-ache-whiners, the Candy Crush inviters, and those who bombard social media with their very own selfie photoshoot sessions. It just gets to be a lot. But I haven’t unfriended or hidden Luke, even though I’ve come close.

People can disagree on personal philosophies, but when you really look into someone’s heart, what do you see? Are we all just on very different trajectories toward the same goal? Isn’t that what centuries of various religious beliefs have taught us? Disregard the haters for a minute, and take a closer look at your friend, family member, or co-worker who holds a very different political stance. You know the one I’m talking about—the one who, behind his back you say things like, “but he’s so normal and caring! How could he possibly be a [insert liberal/conservative/socialist/ Democrat/Republican/Kanye fan]?” Think about that person hard. How does he conduct himself? Does he defend the rights of minorities? Does he help those facing hardships, people with disabilities, or the elderly, homeless, or sick? Is that person willing to actually get off of his ass and get his hands dirty rather than sitting around spouting off his opinions? Ouch. That’s a hard one, folks. Because that’s what caring people who actually want to change the world do. It’s called love of your fellow man.

From seeing his occasional posts, I’ve learned that Luke continues to be well-read; he does his research. He refuses to support either presidential candidate because, to put it mildly, he is dissatisfied with both choices. After my second glass of wine, aka truth serum, I sent a private message to Luke, conveying my thoughts and praising his beautifully written post. He is not one for veiled sentiment or having smoke-blown up his ass, so I think he appreciated my honesty. He simply said this: “I can sit here and disagree with all of my friends on a lot of issues, but at the end of the day, it’s their personality and the caliber of their character that I hold in regard.” Let that be true for all of us. Last night, a young man who left my classroom over a decade ago—a man who defended my right to hop on social media and voice my opinions, a man who is confined to a wheel chair, a man who is incredibly aggravating— made me stay up all night writing, analyzing, and pondering my own flaws and judgements. His views frustrate me as much as I probably frustrate my own parents. And just as they are proud of me, I will always admire those who seek good in the world. Maybe all of our conversations through this very contentious time need to start there rather than end there. One of the basic lessons I try to convey to my students is to listen as much as they speak, or even more than they speak. Let’s do that. Let’s begin with a bigger picture. Let’s begin with equality, human rights, and human decency. Let’s begin by actually doing something besides pontificating. Let’s begin with the caliber of character and work backwards.

The Meantime

Maybe this is the trajectory predestined in the stars, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Welcome to HerVerse! I am so grateful for this “mosaic” existence I’ve been living. When I’m not teaching, editing college essays, and chaperoning high school events, I try to capture each fitted, broken, smooth, and jagged piece of life, connecting back to an ancient heart that speaks to friendship, perseverance, humor and love.

I’ve lived an adult life of “the meantime”– waiting for my real life to begin. What I’ve discovered on this journey are surprising moments of beautiful truth disguised as ordinary living. It’s nothing momentous or glamorous, but I am grateful for each minuscule miracle, each kindred spirit that has crossed my path.

To read how this all began, check out my piece “The Meantime” published in Role Reboot, September 2015.

The Meantime