The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Monday, June 23, 2008

Long Ago

Reflections on a stone.

The other day I was walking past the cemetery in downtown Amherst where Emily Dickinson is buried, and decided to stop in for a few minutes.

I am sorry to report that Miss Emily is still dead.

I guess I felt a little tired or in a contemplative mood or something, and wanted to sit down. Nearby there was an old wall that had a sort of octagonal seat built into it. Once seated, I turned my attention to the two grave stones directly before it.

The writing on the one on the left had worn away to the point that it was unreadable. However, the one on the right, although faded, still had legible markings if you squinted a bit.

The name across the top I can't make out. Will something? But directly beneath it clearly says:

Son of
A.E. & Nettie
Born Dec. 20, 1891
Died Mar. 31, 1892

That's not much information to go on, or is it? In cemeteries sometimes you have to read between the stones. The most obvious fact of course is that this is the grave of a baby, born in December and dead the day before April Fool's, three months and eleven days old.

A human baby doesn't develop much in that time, but you can still look in a baby's eyes a lot of times in three months and eleven days. An interesting fact is that the baby was born on December 20th. That made that baby boy something special - a Christmas baby. It must have been a very merry holiday for Amherst's Chandler family that Christmas of 1891, to have a newborn in the house. A little later came another holiday, New Year's, and again it must have been something special to start the new year with a new member of the family.

I wonder how the baby died. It may have been born sickly, and in those days of primitive medicine if you were born in the winter in New England in less than robust health you wouldn't last until spring. Then again the boy may have been born healthy, but in the days before anti-biotics a common cold could be a death sentence. My grandmother had a saying from her childhood that went, "It isn't the cough that carries you off, it's the coffin they carry you off in."

What I find most remarkable about the marker is its size. It is a pretty big stone for just a thirteen week old baby. There was real emotion involved to make that kind of investment in commemorating that short a life. The funeral was probably April 2nd 1892. Miss Emily's nearby gravesite - she had died three years earlier in 1889 - would have borne silent witness to the somber gathering.

Ah, but it was a good stone they planted above their son, one that endured and is still legible 116 years later, when I came to sit for a spell, and to think too much of times gone by and the past that can never be fully known, nor fully forgotten nor fully redeemed.

I remember when my parents reached a certain age they started complaining about certain mysterious aches and pains they were starting to feel despite having done nothing out of the ordinary. As a typical young person I responded with a cold indifference bordering on contempt for any talk from oldsters about the effects of aging. But time is a joker, and we live, if we're lucky, to endure the old age we once mocked.

For example, this morning I was kneeling on a chair to reach behind my bed to get something I'd dropped (don't ask). All morning I felt a mysterious pain in my knee, and realized it must be one of those annoying but inexplicable aches my elders used to talk about. There was nothing about kneeling on the chair that was injurious, yet it hurt just the same. I mentioned this to an old guy at the Amherst Survival Center where I work. All he did was shrug and say, "Welcome to the club."

I cried out in protest: "But I never wanted to belong to that club!"

Saturday night I came upon this artwork in chalk on a sidewalk in Northampton.


Mark T. Alamed said...

" think too much of times gone by and the past that can never be fully known, nor fully forgotten nor fully redeemed."

Nice work,Tom.

Anonymous said...

Tom Devine you are a wise old soul and a true genius.