When I was young, I sometimes went to walk in the local cemetery on weekends — usually after my mother had firmly observed that it was too nice out to spend the day indoors reading.
What I liked about walking in the cemetery was being able to speculate about the lives of the people who were buried there. In the older section, where the burials had occurred in and around what was then known as “the turn of the century,” one could find men and women who had been born in the 1850’s and 1860’s — just like the principal characters in the Victorian novels we were reading for English that were my favorite part of high school homework.
The headstones in this part of the cemetery were mainly clustered in family plots, usually around one large stone commemorating the names and dates of birth and death of the father and mother — with smaller stones bearing names and dates for each of their children (and the children’s wives and husbands, if any).
But now and then, only the father’s name and dates were on the large stone. Where this was the arrangement, among the smaller stones bearing the names and dates of sons and daughters was one without a name. It was inscribed with just a single word: “Mother.”
An only child, I would stand in front of one of these family plots, subtracting dates of birth from dates of death, and arranging family trees in my head. When I saw the early death of an infant, I would try to imagine the cause — diphtheria? scarlet fever? smallpox? — and picture to myself the loss and the grieving. When I discovered an unmarried daughter (not uncommon in those nineteenth-century families), I would try to imagine what her life had become as her brothers and sisters married and moved away.
I also sometimes wondered about the occasional mother buried namelessly among her children. Here too were possibilities for dramatic speculation. Had she endured a despotic nineteenth-century marriage in which repeated childbearing and endless housekeeping had entirely eroded her identity? Or — a more benign hypothesis — perhaps the family plot had been purchased long after she had died, so that she was actually buried elsewhere, in an even older cemetery, with a proper epitaph.
In any event, I never wondered about her for long. After all, she had lived way back in the nineteenth century. Women were full-fledged citizens now. And I was sure her children had loved her. Which, for a mother, was what counted, wasn’t it? Besides, early childhood death and spinsterhood provided richer and more comfortable vicarious emotion. So I would move on — the cemetery tourist — to other headstones.
When I was much less young (in mid-life actually), I lived near another cemetery. This one had also been founded in the mid-nineteenth century, so that here too there was an older section with family plots. And here too — when strolling on a beautiful weekend afternoon (as my mother would have recommended) — I could come across a cluster of headstones amid which I could just make out, on one small darkened stone tilting into the earth, the single word, “Mother.”
But now, a mother myself of grown children, I was angry for this poor anonymous woman. Was this all her life had amounted to? Transmission of DNA to the next generation? Flushed with unwelcome rage, I would quickly hurry out the open scrollwork gates of the tranquil cemetery and plunge myself again into the problems and remaining pleasures of a professional person in mid-life who happened also to be a woman.
Today, well into the twenty-first century, I am not young at all — and have only just begun to understand a little how private, and in the end how evanescent, is every life — male or female.
I had thought to leave behind, while I still can, some record of my own mother, other than her gravestone, for my children and grandchildren. I find that all I can do is commemorate her as my mother. To say that what I can write about her is her life story would be untrue.
Yes, I know where she worked and what she did there after I grew up and no longer needed her. I know the patchwork of selected anecdotes from her past she chose to tell me. I have memories of what she was like with me at various periods of my own life.
But I never knew her as a person who was not my mother. I never knew how she felt as a girl, or woman, or wife, or old woman. I never knew what she really hoped, or dreamed, or suffered.
All that went into the grave with her. So perhaps I was right when I was young — that to be a remembered and (yes!) much loved mother is enough.
Love and remembrance: Is there anything better to leave behind?