Posts Tagged ‘Woodlawn Cemetery’

I thought for this Memorial Day a replay of the post from this day last year was appropriate and says exactly what I wanted to express this morning. We are living in strange times with a leader with little if any impulse control and a need to achieve his desired outcome regardless of the means needed to do so. I am of the opinion that if push comes to shove ( and with his knack for alienating and shoving, it’s a real possibility) he would not hesitate to spend the lives of  many of our soldiers to protect his interests. And there is a building doubt as to whether his interests are our interests.

I think that is why this Memorial Day takes on special significance. We must remember the horror of war that brought about this holiday and not gloss it over. It was not meant for glorification of war. It was a day of grieving and remembrance of souls taken much too early. Give it a thought today.

Memorial Day weekend.  It’s become the symbolic starting point for summer, a time of barbecues and partying.  Fireworks. In those rare instances when we do take the time to consider the day, many of us tend to think of it in terms of patriotism and nationalism.

But it was created from the loss and sorrow of a civil war that ripped this country and many families apart.  It was meant to alleviate the grief of the many families who suffered the ultimate loss, to let them know that the nation shared their sorrow in the memory of fallen family members.

In the nearby Woodlawn National Cemetery, where my mother, along with both my grandfathers and several uncles, is buried, there is a section that contains the nearly 3000 graves of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War in the Elmira, NY prison camp.  Whenever I look at those stones and think of those men of the south, I always think about their families who may not have even known that their sons were suffering in a cold Northern prison.  They were mothers, wives or children who would never see or hug their sons and husbands and fathers again. People whose loss forever left a hole in their lives.

And this sacrifice was for what?  An idea, the preservation of an ideology that probably didn’t affect their day to day lives in the first place? The financial interests of the planters and plantation owners, the wealthy ruling class?

Why are we so easily stirred to war, so willing to sacrifice our own kin and their futures?

There are no easy answers.  Maybe that’s why the holiday has transformed into what it is today– it’s too terrible an image to bear when we look in that mirror and ask those questions.

So for this Sunday’s music on a Memorial Day weekend, I thought I’d play a song that asks for peace on earth with the hope that fewer families in the future will have to see this earth absorb the blood of their sons and daughters.  I know that sounds like a pipedream, a world without war.  But I have to ask  myself: Why not peace?

Here’s U2 and Peace on Earth.  Have a great Sunday and a great holiday.

NOTE: The image here on the left is a new painting, The Kinship, that is part of my show that opens this coming Friday, June 2, at the Principle Gallery.  There is a sense of remembrance in this piece for me that jibes with the real spirit of this day.

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There is a documentary film out now that is being premiered locally here tonight called 300 Miles to Freedom.  It tells the story of John W. Jones, an African American born into slavery on a Leesburg, Virginia plantation in 1817.  Fearing his sale to another plantation owner known to be violent with his slaves, Jones and four other slaves escaped in June 0f 1844 and fled north.  After a harrowing journey they arrived in the Elmira area in July, 1844.  Jones made Elmira his home and remained there until his death in 1900.

Elmira was a major stop in the Underground Railroad of the per-Civil War era, the last major stop for many slaves before heading north towards St. Catherines in Ontario.  In 1851, Jones became an agent for the Undergound Railroad and was responsible for the successful passage of at least 860 slaves into freedom.  With the coming of the railroad lines in 1854, Jones made arrangements with rail employees that allowed him to stow the escaping slaves in early morning baggage cars which came to be known as the Freedom Baggage Cars.

In 1859, Jones became the sexton, or caretaker, of  Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira.  In the next few  years, during the Civil War period, Jones was charged with the burial of the Confederate soldiers who died at the nearby prisoner of war camp, notoriously called Hellmira.  Nearly 3000 southern troops died at that time, all buried by Jones, who was recognized by the federal government for the care he took with these burials and with the precise records he kept for each soldier, eventually making the site a National Cemetery.  My mother and many other relatives are buried in that same cemetery that grew from Jones’ labor.

Jones was paid $2.50 for each burial which made him a tidy fortune which made him the wealthiest black man in the region.  While doing some genealogical research I came across some relatives of mine who lived a few houses away from the home that Jones bought and owned on College Avenue.  This home has been moved to a site across from the National Cemetery and is in the process of being made into a museum celebrating the life and work of John W. Jones.

I’ve always loved the story of John Jones life here in Elmira and am glad that it is being retold in a film.  Here’s the trailer for the film.

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Ernie Davis GravesiteI was in Woodlawn Cemetery yesterday, visiting my mother’s grave for Mother’s Day.  I may have mentioned before that I am a big fan of cemeteries.  I like being among the quiet of cemeteries, walking through the varied architecture of the different stones and all the names.  The names.  I particularly like the names.  Some are just simple names but some are relics from the past, names you just don’t hear anymore.  Orlo.  Myrtle.  Elmer.  Alvinia.  Harlo, who resides next to my grandfather who is a simple Frank.

There’s a certain magic and power in reading these names, almost as though by just uttering the name a little spark of their life is ignited.  As though there’s a certain gratitude expressed back by the mere mention of their names.

Now, I’m not going to go all spiritual here because I don’t even know what I believe in that aspect.  To the best of my knowledge, I have never encountered ghosts or spirits.  Never been haunted.  I’ve had a couple of psychic readings which I’ve found kind of laughable because I’m always left with the feeling that these people were getting nothing from me and were struggling just to say anything that might trigger some type of reaction.  Let’s just say they didn’t make me a believer.  

But in the cemetery I have had a couple of coincidences that just make me wonder.  Several years ago, my wife and I were taking a stroll through Woodlawn, just walking along quickly  and periodically saying aloud a name that struck us from the stones we passed.  At a certain point, I was suddenly reminded of a young guy who I had went to high school with.  He wasn’t a friend, in fact I only knew him from passing nods in the hall at school.  He had lived a fairly hard life and many years before had broken into a closed factory, going through a broken window and in the process slicing his wrist so severely that he died within a few steps.  I hadn’t thought of him for many years and suddenly I wondered where a kid from a poor family like him might be buried.  Would his family been able to bury him in a place like the lovely park of this cemetery?  Within thirty seconds,the thought now evaporated, a stone that was at the back of the plot we were passing caught my eye.  The engraving had an interesting look, something I hadn’t seen before.

 I cut through the stones to get a look and stopped several feet from it, now being able to read it.  It turned out to be nothing special and as I turned to head back I looked down.  It was the grave of my high school acquaintance.  It had a simple plate that was flush with the ground, that could only be seen from above.  It gave me a little shiver.  Most likely pure coincidence, but what had made me think of his name that day, only moments before?  What made me notice and approach for the first time  a gravestone that I had walked by probably a hundred times before?  What had made me stop at this precise spot to read it?  I gave him a quick greeting and headed back to the road.

Yesterday, as I was coming back from my mother’s grave I cut through the stones to visit my grandparents’ gravesite.  As I walked, I thought of Ernie Davis’ grave in the same park.  Ernie was the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy and his tragic death from leukemia had been the subject of a movie this past year, The Express.  He was actually known as the Elmira Express but the Elmira was dropped to give the title more widespread appeal.  He has been hero of legendary stature in the Elmira area since I was a tiny child.  As I walked I thought of the Davis movie then I suddenly thought of Marty Harrigan, his high school coach and a big influence on his life.  He had also been my high school principle.  He had died a few years back which was probably the last time I had given him more than a fleeting thought.  

Within a minute I was at my grandparents’ gravesite and spent a few moments there.  As I turned to leave, I glanced to my right and there  it was.  Martin Harrigan.  I chuckled a little and said hello before heading back to the car.  

I don’t know.  Probably nothing more than a puzzling coincidence but it makes one wonder about how the world operates and if we are truly aware and subject to everything that goes on around us.  

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992-221-jpegThere is an unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira that contains the remains of  my great-grandmother, Nellie Myers.  She died in May of 1933 in Allentown, PA.

I always think of her as Nellie Tobin because,  when trying to find any info on her, her maiden name was the only name that brought anything at all.  Which was practically nothing.  Only a listing or two from her family in some Elmira City Directories from the 1870’s and 1880’s.

My aunt Norma is the only member of our family with any memory of her and that was when she was a young child so there is little known of her except for the circumstances of her death.  A few days after my father was born in Allentown, his grandmother, Nellie, went to the market with his sister, Betty.  Nellie sent Betty into a store and when Betty returned Nellie was gone.  It was discovered she had jumped in the Lehigh River from which she was later fished out.  Most of my aunt Norma’s memory has to do with the funeral and the bloated nature of her body after being shipped back to Elmira several days later.

My family, like many others, is full of folks like Nellie Tobin, family members who are lost in the miasma of memory.  There is little known of them and they are long forgotten.  All that denotes their existence are perhaps a death listing in the archives of an old newspaper and a headstone on their grave, if they’re lucky.  Nellie is only a name on a yellowed index card in the office at Woodlawn Cemetery.

I don’t know why I bring this up today.  Perhaps because Nellie Tobin is, for me, a symbol for the tenuousness of our lives here and how we are all pretty much destined for the anonymity of the collective memory in the future.  There’s a certain sadness in this realization.  To have all the things that  define us as vibrant living beings reduced to a cold line of writing here or there in some archive is a sobering thought, one that makes you reconsider how you live your life.

It’s only a thought.  There’s little one can do but live for today and let that distant future take care of itself.  But for my today, I’ll remember Nellie Tobin and try to imagine her existence.  Maybe she won’t seem so blue…

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Seems Like a New SunThis piece, Seems Like a New Sun, is part of the show currently hanging at the Haen Gallery in Asheville, NC.  It’s a cityscape, a genre I enjoy mainly because of the abstract quality of shape and color that is formed by building up the structures.

At the opening for the show, someone asked if this painting was of a necropolis, a city of the dead or cemetery.  They cited the lack of windows and doors and said that it reminded them of those in Paris and New Orleans, where many of the graves are housed above-ground in beautiful small mausoleums.  This kind of took me  back a little because the idea had never entered my mind at any point in the creation of this piece but when I looked again it made perfect sense, in more than the obvious way.

I have always been attracted to cemeteries of all sorts and when we travel (a rarity these days) Cheri and I generally find a cemetery and walk around it, admiring the stones and mausoleums.  I read the names and epitaphs, trying to discern what sort of life they indicate.  Some find this morbid but I find it fascinating and very peaceful and in some ways, invigorating and reinforcing of life.  There is a lot to be said in the way a culture treats its dead.

We have a beautiful cemetery in our home area, Woodlawn Cemetery, that was created in the heyday of “burial parks” in the mid-19th century.  It has a rolling landscape with beautiful old growth trees and meandering roads. Very nice.  It’s home now to Mark Twain, Hal Roach, Ernie Davis and others.  Adjoining it is a national cemetery where there are the remains of a number of Confederate soldiers from the Civil War who perished in the notorious prisoner of war camp at Elmira.  There is history everywhere if we only look.

This is Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Evita Peron is its most famous resident.  Quite a striking sight amid the sprawl of the living city.  Maybe there is some validity in the viewer’s question…Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

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