So many to remember
May 29, 2002
The three veterans stood somewhat in formation, their guns held perhaps not as rigid as when they served their country 50 years ago.
Facing east, they stood near the base of a flag pole that had stood in Austin’s Calvary Cemetery for likely the last 100 Memorial Days.
There were a few regulars missing from the lineup, more and more being added to the cemetery to be remembered than coming to remember.
Sun beating down on the cemetery’s ridge overlooking Reese River Valley, my great-uncle read President Bush’s proclamation — no microphone necessary to reach the crowd of 15. He read a simple prayer, which was followed by “Taps,” flowing from an old, handheld tape recorder. Then a three-gun, three shot salute to all those lying in marked and unmarked graves, veterans and children, the recent dead and the long forgotten.
The flag was raised from half-staff to the top of the rusty pole.
Then it was done, Memorial Day at its simplest. No politicians imploring us to remember. No scores of veterans asking us not to forget. Just three veterans, a tape recorder and 15 people.
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But how the tears flowed.
That old cemetery, one of the best historical cemeteries in the state, I think, has long been one of my favorite spots. Perhaps the events of Sept. 11 pushed more and more people into cemeteries to remember their own this year, but my family … we are professional Memorial Day observers, steeped in a tradition now six generations deep. Our dead do not pass without, at a minimum, birthdays and Memorial Day being recognized.
It was a particularly difficult day of remembrance this year for us, though. My grandmother dragged me to the cemetery hundreds of times while I was growing up to take flowers, clean graves or pick pine nuts from the large tree shadowing our family plots. The tradition of caring for the dead was so important to her and other members of the family, she always told me she would haunt me if I didn’t take care of her grave.
Her side of the plot was always empty; the need to ever tend it was a thought so distant, I chose not to consider it.
Until this year.
This year there are flowers there. This year she joined those for whom she cared for so long, the fourth generation to be laid to rest there.
The loss is still too recent for us. Who knew guns and “Taps” could make you cry so much, or if you’re trying to be strong, want to cry so much?
We brought Grandma and the rest of the family flowers the day before. We tidied up, dug holes for potted plants so the wind couldn’t topple them and watered everything before leaving. Memorial Day, we wandered around the cemetery to remember others we knew and ponder over the graves of those we didn’t.
Cemetery care is an important event in general in Austin. This year, a small village of people — perhaps more than are in Austin — gathered at the cemetery over the three-day weekend to pay their respects. It was the biggest crowd I’ve seen in years, and the weeded, raked graves showed the respect.
But then there are the graves with plastic flowers left long ago, sunburnt white and stubbornly refusing to blow away from the grave on which they were placed. Sagebrush, Indian Tea, rose and lilac bushes have overtaken older graves with wrought iron fences — the only mark that someone cared for the person lying there. The ground sinks in in some areas, warning of a plot long filled but forgotten.
We were greeted by the names of John Zimmer, native of Prussia. Bartholomeo and Louise Sciuchetti. The Walsh family of Bantry, County Cork, Ireland. They had stories, but their graves don’t reflect family alive left to remember them.
I’ve walked through the cemetery dozens of times, marveling at the workmanship that went into 19th- and early 20th-century graves. From beautiful marble angels to wooden crosses, the tombstones of the forgotten beg passersby to notice that this person existed.
Some I’ve paid attention to more than others, but always I thought it sad that for many, all they leave behind in this life is a tombstone. This tour of the cemetery, a poem etched in an obelisk atop the 1891 tombstone of Michael Henry Finnegan caught my eye.
“Would I were dead if death could be the end of all the loving that makes life so fair. If love can die, I pray the sun may send an arrow through my heart that death may tear away this mortal state and make me soon forget the sweet hope of love’s eternal day, which may yet die like a purple violet strewn on the robe of him who passed away.”
That first line caught me. I have walked past that grave dozens of times, but never stopped to read the poem slowly fading into the white marble. I prefer to think it was written by Mrs. Finnegan, who does not rest near her husband or son, also Michael, who died at 9 years, 3 months and 5 days old in 1876. Her grief flows through those words, and to someone still aching from a profound loss, they struck a chord.
I read it aloud to my aunt and uncle, who were a few graves ahead of me, hoping they might hear what struck me so: we loved deeply, so we hurt deeply. But death is not the end of love. Mrs. Finnegan knew that, and in her longing for “love’s eternal day” she left her emotion for everyone to see, even if she, or her posterity, would never again return to her husband’s grave.
No tombstone could ever convey the love my grandmother freely gave. But my family will always have more than a tombstone to remind people of that. Sad, though, that all around me in that small cemetery, there were so many who have and will have only an epitaph — or simply a name — by which to be remembered. Ironic that so many ask us not to forget.
Amanda Hammon, a Nevada Appeal reporter, is a native of Austin.