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José Guadalupe Posada:
Devils in the Graveyard (n.d., circa 1871-1913)

" … not yet wholly history …"

I have visited few of my ancestor’s final resting places, though The Muse and I have tried to visit all we could over the years. We found traces of my earliest immigrant forebears in a well-weathered gravestone for my first Pilgrim great-grandmother preserved in a wall in Guilford, Connecticut. I found a fourth great-grandfather, Major George Currin's stone, in the town cemetery in Galax, Virginia, the one carved by his sons before they left for Oregon. I found Silvanus Seward, another fourth great-grandfather's stone, overgrown in an almost abandoned upstate New York cemetery. I never met any of these revered ancestors personally, though. In my life, I’ve met only the most recent tier of ancestors, most of them just before they became ancestors when they were still grand and great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I've even lived long enough now where I've known some contemporaries and their offspring who left before me, none of them ancients yet; I think of each of these as the DearlyDeparted.

Those who lived centuries ago might spark my imagination and even garner heartfelt admiration, but I never actually knew them, so my affection feels distant.
Those I knew, embraced, and befriended belong to another class of relations. The aunts, uncles, grandparents, sisters, and cousins, not to mention my own darling daughter, these people were demonstrably real to me and remain so, not merely legend or story. Eventually, we'll all evolve into little better than legend and story, but until then, those of us remaining who knew them when will continue holding them in places reserved for the living. None departing can ever be truly gone as long as anyone who knew them when remains standing and capable of remembering. History happens at the moment when the last one standing finally sits down. Until then, we might be departed, but we're still dear.

Dearness seems a curious property, for it doesn't require even an ounce of activity from the one revered. The loved one fulfills a passive role with no active responsibility other than to populate another's memory. This, though, can be daunting effort, for the living remain famously distractable, capable of failing in this one incredibly critical duty. We might feel too busy to visit the cemetery on Memorial Day or innocently forget that loved one's birthday they once so enthusiastically celebrated together. None of us are ever infallible, and we're each disarmingly capable of losing our way. We might forget that any day we once seized remains in our possession ad infinitum and cannot be abandoned without forfeiting something critically important. It might be that our souls remain intrinsically entangled with anyone we remember who's departed, that we're both dependent upon that fading connection until the last of what was once an 'us' departs. Much of any effective life involves keeping memories alive just as long as humanly possible. Otherwise, what could all of this fussing and these feathers have possibly been about? We're done for without those recollections.

The chronicle only tells the most permanent part of a Fambly's history. It utterly fails to capture the feelings that once represented the DearlyDeparted. I marvel that almost everyone I've discovered left a few rememberers behind them and that each of those enjoyed a few years or decades of what I might characterize as twilight life; lives not actually experienced by the dead relative, but lives where their memory continued to influence their loved one's experience. How many human experiences have been inspired by their DearlyDeparted, acts of love and revenge, repayment and any subsequent event utterly dependent upon their prior presence? We do not always die immediately. Sure, our bodies might crumble for disposal, but our influence extends through family and friends to end sometime later. The DearlyDeparted continue their journey forward even after they're laid to rest.

Yesterday, The Muse and I stopped to visit my little sister on the occasion of her seventy-first birthday. She was tragically killed during her forty-third year, the first of my immediate Fambly to leave. It was a shock from which none of us ever hope to fully recover, for whatever our contentions in life—and, believe me, our lives were never without contention—we remain inexorably bound in ways not even her death could untangle. So, we stopped and bought a nice geranium, and I bought a piece of cake and a plastic fork with which to celebrate. We ate at the picnic table outside the grocery store and remembered together before driving over to the cemetery to leave her flowers. Her gravestone proclaims that The Lord Is Our Shepherd, that We Shall Not Want, a biblical passage I'm confident I cannot successfully interpret and equally sure my sister Sue couldn't, either. Why would any of us want to not want? She's departed but not yet forgotten. She still attracts visitors and inspires lumpy-throated memories of activities we once performed together and still resonate today. Gone but DearlyDeparted, she's not yet wholly history or entirely possessed by the great encroaching mystery.

©2024 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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