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It’s been awhile since New Year’s Eve, but still, I find myself in the land of Auld Lang Syne—that year-end post-it note to stop and think of the people in our lives. Three weeks into 2016, and I’m still here, despite the fact that such prompting once seem silly to me. What does that song mean, anyway? Who forgets old acquaintances?
When you’re young, you haven’t had time to forget the people you know: your family, for starters, then neighbors and schoolmates, college classmates and teammates, housemates and workmates. Old acquaintances aren’t old enough to disappear on you, when you’re busy growing up. And even as the years go by, with social media at the ready to update us on our grade school classmates’ doings, the oldest of old friends are never more than a click away. So why the required reminder, as the old year passes to the new, to stop and remember?
Well, now I know. You get older, and people start disappearing from your life. First to go are the ones from your grandparents’ generation, and then your parents’. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is headed. Which is why it starts to make sense, to make a point of thinking about old acquaintances, and to ponder, every now and again, how you yourself might want to be recalled. Auld Lang Syne is a little bit of memorial practice, along the way.
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Memorials, it turns out, have been very much on my mind.
Just over a month ago, my father-in-law passed away. For most of his eighties, this ambitious and vibrant and generous man had been on a slow but steady decline. Since autumn, his lack of energy and his inability to rally for much of anything clearly signaled that the end was near. Remarkably, even as his body became a frail vessel for what remained of the stalwart individual we had known and loved, his mind was still in there, still processing. He recognized his loved ones, and knew what we were up to. He was delighted to hear about the things that mattered to his adult children and his beloved grandkids. His life ended the way most of us hope ours will end—at home, with no beeping machines or medical interventions, with his wits about him and his lifelong sweetheart at his side. He got to slip away with the knowledge that all would be well for the people he loved the most.
Even though we knew it was coming, the memorial process was daunting. Our to-do lists were full of people who needed to be contacted, details that needed attending to. By the time we got to Christmas Day, when the whole family gathered together at the edge of a beautiful river to share Georgie stories, to laugh and shed a few tears, there was a relief, that we’d gotten this far, that we’d done what needed to be done, that the only project remaining would be the planning of a public memorial service, scheduled for springtime.
Well, not quite the very last project. The final and most permanent reminder of the man we knew and loved, the last memorial act of all, would be the placing of a stone marker in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in the town where my in-laws raised their kids and lived most of their adult lives. My father-in-law would be joining the Alcotts and the Emersons in a great Concordian forever after. Whatever we placed there would be a final memorial to the man we all adored.
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With remarkable camaraderie, my husband’s family rallied to handle all the tasks at hand. Each of us pitched in to return calls and follow up on arrangements, and to coordinate my mother-in-law’s holiday travel and meals and lodging, once we all determined that New Hampshire would be the place for us to gather together. We also got good at delegating tasks to the person most capable, or most interested, or most available. Which is how I ended up on gravestone duty. Clearly, I care. Perhaps more accurately, I was the most opinionated.
So, since I needed a little bit of direction (or consensus, at least) before I got started as the gravestone project manager, I asked my husband to accompany me to one of my favorite places–the historic and remarkable Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I wanted to show him some gravestones that I thought were particularly wonderful, as well as some that I thought didn’t work so well. I wanted to give him a sense of options that might be worth taking, choices worth making.
Here is a photo of the very first gravestone I shared with my beloved. It’s one I particularly adore for the beauty of the stone itself, the artistry of the hand-carved lettering, and the delightful combination of typefaces:
There’s something about both the style of this memorial, and the selection of descriptive adjectives that simply delights me. Plus it’s just a work of art, this stone. It also is one of the few in the Mt. Auburn that includes lower case lettering, which to my mind is much more friendly, and much less headline-y than all capital letters.
My husband’s first comment? “Hey, I know these people!” Well, not the ones already buried there, but Jesse’s children and Emil’s grandchildren. Which led to a series of emails between us and the Zofnasses, which led to emails and phone calls and, not more than a week after that walk through the Mt. Auburn, a trip to the John Stevens Shop in Newport RI–where, it turns out, artisans have been carving beautiful lettering into stone markers and tablets and memorials for over three hundred years. Three hundred years! John Stevens opened his shop in 1705!
Which is its own amazing story, deserving of its own blog post. I promise I won’t make you wait too long for the next installment.