Long, long ago I had a boyfriend whom I adored. We spent a romantic night together, I was quietly happy, when he turned to me and said: “Why do you always have to be so down?”
I looked at him, bereft.
“You’re not an up person, Eve,” he said. “You’re always thinking about sad things.”
At that moment I was as happy as a woman could be lying in bed with someone she loves, but I must have said something that elicited that reaction. I remember to this day how rejected I felt that moment. In fact, for years I wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with me, that my mind could so often wander into realms of devastation and loss.
So, there I was last Saturday, the nicest day we’ve had this entire rainy month. I basked in the sun of Cape Ann on the North Shore, the Atlantic waves low and friendly, the foam laughing, a smile on everybody’s face. When I window-shopped at Rockport the store owners wished me a good day outdoors, promising to join us all outside when the store closed. I don’t think I heard one child cry the entire day, didn’t see chagrin on one parent’s overstrained face. The sun was free of humidity and the constant gray promise of rain. Saturday was free, Saturday was easy, Saturday was a day when I loved the world.
So what did I do? I went up to visit the cemetery that overlooks the beach.
“You did what?” Aussie said.
“I went to the cemetery.”
“Are you crazy? There was the beach just dying for you to go in, and you went to visit dead people?”
“They were dead people from 400 years ago, Auss. It was a real old cemetery.”
“So what? Dead’s dead! If I was there by the beach you wouldn’t catch me dead in a cemetery, not even to pee.”
“I know, Aussie, but it was interesting. The gravestones were so old you couldn’t make out the writing on any of them before 1800. Like this one:
To the memory of Solomon Poole,
Oldest child of Solomon and Polly Poole,
Who died September 27, 1805, aged 1 year 11 months 20 days.
Not so sweet a flower, and must it fade?
“You’re out of your mind. You’re a crazy woman.”
“That’s what an old lover said long ago. But you know, Aussie, people lost their children all the time in those days. There were no antibiotics, little understanding of the importance of clean water and hygiene. Many families lost most of their children, not just a few.”
“There you go again, getting all sad on me.”
“I’m not sad, but I am drawn to things like this, I can’t explain why, Aussie.”
“Just don’t call it intergenerational trauma—puhlease! You wouldn’t have caught The Man going into that cemetery.”
“You wouldn’t have caught the Man on the beach if he couldn’t smoke a cigar. And don’t forget, Aussie, we went to Auschwitz many, many times, which is a gigantic cemetery. Not to mention Murambi and Srebrenica. They always affected him very deeply.”
“That was in Poland, Rwanda, and Bosnia, not Rockport, Cape May, US of A.”
“You’re right, Aussie, sometimes I still tend to go to the dark side.”
“But since Bernie died I’ve gotten lighter, Auss, haven’t you noticed? I’m even happier. Sometimes I’m even funny.”
“Name one time.”
“It’s as if on his way out he looked back, saw my devastated face, and said: Not sure I’ll need it where I’m going, so here, you can have it. And he left me his lightheartedness and humor.”
“His neediest pupil.”
“In that spirit—”
“Here it comes.”
“–I want to ask for help for a particular family that suffered a fire in their house.”
“Why can’t you and I have a conversation without your bringing up people who’re suffering?”
“Aussie, there was a fire on the second floor of a local apartment building from—”
“—someone who smoked in bed and fell asleep. Nobody got hurt, they all got out safely.”
“Could we make that the end of the story?”
“No, Aussie. The firemen came and saved the building, but the water destroyed everything on the first three floors, including everything in one apartment on the ground floor where two families were crowded together. One was here legally, so they could get relief from the landlord and the insurance company, but the other family was illegal, parents with three small children, and they got nothing. They lost everything, Auss—beds, furniture, clothes, cribs, and temporarily their home. Everything was destroyed and not one penny in compensation. I’m bringing some cash to Jimena tomorrow to bring them, but we need more. And food cards for them as well!”
“More, more, more! There’s never an end. And there you go again, being sad.”
“I’m not sad, just noticing how two families live squeezed and crowded in the same apartment, and one gets help and one doesn’t. Helping them is not because I’m sad, helping them is God’s work.”
There was another gravestone in the Rockport cemetery:
Joseph Roe, died May 23, 1817, aged 19 years.
Love and affection here erect the stone.
He was flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.
He was a twin. Like twin brothers, they loved each other.
One still remains, but where is the other?
We trust in heaven.
We trust in heaven—and ask for help.
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