At That Time
I live close to Green-Wood Cemetery. I like it there, walking around in all the stories.
Long ago, the stories went right onto the headstones. One young man — I'll call him "Martin V.B. Thompson," though that isn't his name — met his end in the Brooklyn Navy Yard after getting caught in the machinery of a steamship. To make room for that grisly brief on his grave marker, his family abbreviated his first name: a story unto itself.
At that time, a Martin like this one lived in his quaintly punctuated street — in it, not on it as we do today — and prayed one of the strange, strong fevers of the day wouldn't carry off most of the people he knew. He had a dozen brothers as a child but only four as an adult, and they might have graduated from law school at the age of 17, gone on to patent obscure but critical improvements to the seltzer bottle, made a gazillion dollars, and founded an opera; or they might have died in shipwrecks. They might have done both. Candy factories exploded downtown and pressed the city under a boot of burnt sugar. Mosquito bites took Martin's uncle's leg and then killed him. His parents called the children after presidents and saints and forgotten skirmishes of the Revolution, and hoped these starchy names would form a protective barrier around them — one of them, at the least.
Anything could have taken him: a wet head, a loose tooth, a clogged flue. Apoplexy was not a metaphor at that time. He couldn't keep those he loved if the earth wanted them back, nor they him.
Those he loved laid Martin on a board in a back room, and washed him out of a tin pail, with a rough sponge. They bound him up to look whole and straight. They dressed him and rouged his face, and set him at a slight pitch, perhaps on some ice. People came and went, and a few of them felt faint; others ate chicken, because at that time, waiting went differently. Those he loved sat with him until the grave was ready.
The story on Martin's headstone, his world and its end, is stark and bloody, and gentle also. The fond and the horrible wouldn't seem to go together, but then that's how we find them, isn't it, at times.
Happy birthday, Don. (Can't spell "fond" without it.)
Tags: September 11th