We finally put my mother’s ashes in the ground, a week after the funeral. She had wanted to be buried with my father, in a military cemetery, and she got her wish.
The man who had just finished filling in the grave took his cap off and said, simply, “My condolences.”
We walked about thirty yards away and I found my dad’s father’s and my grandmother’s graves, Joseph Edward Leo and Rose Leo, side by side. I saw that my grandmother and grandfather had been born two days apart in 1896, and that my grandfather had been in the 147 MG BN, 41 DIV, in World War I. I also saw that my grandmother outlived my grandfather by thirty-two years, just as my mother outlived my dad by thirty-three years.
My grandfather was a Philly cop, an alcoholic apparently, and so my grandmother left him and moved with my dad’s brother and sister to Cape May, New Jersey. She worked as a cleaning lady, and then she bought a big ramshackle unheated white Victorian house on North Street, she bought it for a song because the formerly well-off people who owned it had lost their money and couldn’t pay the taxes. My grandmother rented out rooms to summer vacationers, and then one day she bought the old Victorian next door, at Perry and North, and over the years she acquired a few cottages and a barn behind the big white house.
Eventually my grandmother’s three maiden sisters, my great-aunts Edna, Kate and Sarah Reilly, who all worked at the armory in Philadelphia, bought another boarding house right down the street on Perry. I have very fond memories of summers and being coddled by all four of these tiny old women. I would buy remaindered and second-hand comic books from Wally's cigar shop on Washington Street, a shop that actually had a cigar store Indian in front. I would sit on my aunts’ porch and read comics all day, and every once in a while my aunts would give me some crackers or a liverwurst sandwich to eat, and some ginger ale. It was kid heaven. Every once in a while I would be asked to mow a lawn or trim some hedges, but that was fun too.
For me summers were Cape May, with plenty of family around, aunts, uncles, cousins, some of them living there year round, some coming down for the summer or for vacations, everyone within a few blocks of everyone else...
My grandmother was extremely religious. It was a point of some contention among some in my family when she gave away the big white house to the Franciscans, but I always figured it was her property to do with as she pleased.
She had no real interest in physical comforts or luxuries. She always lived either in a small one-room apartment in one of her houses or, in her last years, in a tiny cottage in the back yard of her property.
Her one concession to the beauties of the physical world was gardening. Her gardens were beautiful and lush, her hedges perfectly trimmed, her grounds in summer smelled like flowers, mixing in with that old Cape May smell of damp wood and salty air.
I remember when my grandmother was in her declining days I would go and visit her every day when she was in Pennsylvania Hospital for a couple of weeks. She would say, “You don’t have to come here every day. You must have other things to do.” That was my grandmother, tough as nails to the end.
She remained separated from my grandfather for about twenty-five years I think, but they never got divorced. They were old school Catholics. And when my grandmother died three decades after my grandfather she was buried at his side...
The cemetery was enormous, row on row of uniform headstones as far as the eye could see, the memories of thousands of men and of their wives.
One little patch of this cemetery includes the memories of my mother and of my father, and those of my dad’s father and my grandmother.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
My mom, my dad, and my sister Kate, Perry Street beach, Cape May