Friday, July 27, 2012

Graves of Lost Siblings

In a couple weeks I’m planning a trip, the trip of a lifetime. A few years ago, my Mom let it be known that she was in fact, not an only child. She had two brothers and a sister. They were all born seven to ten years after her, and all died shortly after birth. My Mom also let it be known that they were buried in a cemetery in Shavertown, Pennsylvania (near where she lives in northeast PA), the vicinity in which I was born and raised. I’ve asked her to take me there, to see the graves. I’m writing this before the fact. I’m not at all sure what I’m in for. So keep your hat on, we may end up miles away from here.

Since my Dad died eight years ago, my Mom has been talking. This may seem unusual. However, my Dad was overbearing to the point where he monopolized all conversations and didn’t allow other people to speak − and this was one of his better qualities. Our lives basically revolved around his family. My Mom’s family was seldom mentioned, and never visited – the living or dead.

So after he died, my Mom started to talk. It’s been great. I’ve learned wonderful things about her family – my family. The most shocking thing was the existence of Robert Daniel, Daniel Robert, and Joyce Elizabeth − and the fact that she knew where they were buried.

I didn’t know any of this back in 1981 when my first wife was pregnant with our first child. It died in utero and had to be aborted.  My mother, after the fact, wanted to have a tree planted in the baby’s memory in a local park. Both my ex-wife and I thought that was ludicrous. We just wanted to forget the horrific experience. About twenty years later, my mother told me that she had gone ahead anyway and had that tree planted. I figured, whatever, if it means that much to you, fine. I forgot about the tree until she began telling me about her lost siblings.

I realized in a flash how meaningful it was to her to plant that tree. She needed something like that to hold on to the memory of what, at the time, would have been her first grandchild. People cherish things they’ve lost in all sorts of ways, and far be it for me to criticize any of them. Over the past thirty years I've provided my mom with FOUR wonderful grandchildren, all of whom she loves and adores. Perhaps even more than she would have if she had not lost the first.

My mom, Beverly Snyder, at the grave of her grandparents
So the fateful day arrived when we planned to visit the cemetery where her siblings are buried. We did this yesterday – my Mom, my brother Tim, and I. After literally months of ninety-degree weather and near-drought conditions in this part of the country, this is the day it rained like hell. I made the wet, hundred mile drive to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the general area in which my Mom lives. We all jumped into my brother’s car and drove out to Shavertown, where Evergreen Cemetery resides. I lived around here for the first nineteen years of my life and never knew this cemetery existed.

My great-grandparents' grave, Evergreen Cemetery
My mom, it turned out, had not been to Evergreen since 1945, when her newborn sister Joyce Elizabeth died, and was buried here. She surprised herself by remembering approximately where the plots were, but we had to search a bit for the actual grave markers. First we found the Jones plot, in which are buried her grandparents, Daniel and Elizabeth Jones. Seeing my mom standing on her grandparents’ graves and looking teary was heartbreaking, as she said that my deceased father had not allowed her visit these graves. Daniel and Elizabeth had a son, Daniel Jr. (who is not buried here), who became my mom's father. Daniel Sr. died in 1920 and Elizabeth later remarried Robert Berwick, whose family plot is about fifty feet away. My mom’s siblings are all buried at the larger Berwick plot.

Brother Tim and my Mom
Until I saw the headstones, I thought it unusual (or even uncreative) to name your first-born boys Robert Daniel and Daniel Robert. But seeing the names engraved on the stones explained all: Daniel was the children's (including my mom) biological grandfather and Robert was their step-grandfather. (My middle name, by the way, is Daniel.) As I said, I always thought my mom was an only child. Her parents Daniel Jr. and wife Anna tried to have more children after my mom was born (in 1938), but the children did not live. Daniel Robert contracted pneumonia and died shortly after birth. Robert Daniel was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and died at birth. (My twenty-one year old son Christopher was also born with the cord wrapped around his neck, but as the delivery took place in a tertiary care medical center in 1990, he received better medical care and survived.)

My mom was six or eight years old when her brothers were born (and died) and does not remember much about the situation. She was ten, however, when her sister Joyce Elizabeth was born. She remembers the baby had a dislocated hip, among other problems, and died shortly after birth. Although the boys were buried at the Berwick family plot, she was not present at the burial. She does remember, however, being present at Joyce Elizabeth’s burial. She said “I remember them lowering that little white casket into the ground.” I just about broke down when she said that. 

Tim and Mom at the Berwick plot
Standing on their graves sixty-seven years later, she added, “They were all beautiful babies. I wonder what they would have looked like if they lived.” I suggested, "Like you?" She smirked and said, "What, short and fat?" None of the children’s names appear on the Berwick stone, for whatever reason. A gigantic evergreen shades the plot. As I was standing beneath it with my family, feeling firmly present in my past, I thought about that tree my mother had planted for my almost-firstborn. I can’t imagine ever being strong enough to visit it, wherever it is.