Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Talk

"Shoghi, you're almost eleven years old," I said to him the other day. "It's time we had the father-son talk."

We were in the car, on the way to the museum, and I could hear him sitting behind me. He knew that this would be one of those serious talks, and he was ready. But when I said that it was "the" talk, I could practically hear him roll his eyes.

"Now," I continued, "I'm not talking about sex. You already know a bit about sex, and love, and how character is so much more important than appearances. You know that you should look at people's virtues and values, their actions and service. You've seen Mama and I, and how we learned about each other before we decided to get married. And you've seen a lot of other people who only saw appearances, and you know how poorly that turns out." He readily agreed with that.

"No, today," I went on, "we're going to talk about death."

I told him that before we went to the museum we were going to go to a cemetery. And so we drove down to the water, parked at a beautiful little park, and took a nice walk along the shore to the cemetery I had in mind.

As we walked, we talked, like we usually do. We walked along the shore, watching the waves, enjoying the sounds of the birds, and I could tell that he was a little bit trepidatious about the end of our walk. Why was I bringing him to a cemetery? He had never really been in one. I mean, he'd been in cemeteries before, but hadn't really visited one. This just seemed a bit strange to him. And after all I've put him through, that's saying a lot.

I talked about other cemeteries, and how I really don't like most of them. They're too boring. The grass is all nice and manicured. The trees are "properly groomed". And they have so many rules and restrictions on the types of headstones you can have these days, most of which are designed to make it easier to keep it all looking nice and trim. It's as if we have taken the sterility of the hospital and transferred it to the graveside.

The one we were visiting, I said, was much more alive. Probably not the best word to describe it, but I can't think of a better one. The trees are all old and gnarled. The grass has many other plants growing throughout. Some would call it weedy, but I would say natural. And the graves come in all shapes and sizes, with many different motifs. It's awesome.

Anyways, we got there safe and sound, and the very first thing we saw as we approached, for there are no walls surrounding it, were a few graves rimmed with an outline of stone just a few inches high. They're essentially a rectangular cement outline showing you where the person is buried.

I stopped beside one of them, on which you could read the name written in moss, it was so old, and stood respectfully beside it.

"Imagine", I said, "the person buried here. Picture her lying down, you can see where she is. And she is as far below the ground as I am above it. You can practically see her lying there. What do you know about her?"

"I know her name", Shoghi said. "Oh, and when she was born, and when she died." He thought about it a bit longer, and added, "I know how old she was."

"Do you know anything else about her?"

He looked puzzled, as if he were missing something. "No, I don't."

"Me neither. But look around. You can see that the person here, next to her, has the same last name, and live around the same time. I'm sure they knew each other. In fact, virtually everyone here lived in the same area. Most of them lived around the same time. They likely knew each other. A community in life, and a community in death."

We walked around, making these sorts of connections, seeing who was buried near each other, who lived at the same time, which groupings seemed to be of similar ethnic background, and how this often changed from one part of the cemetery to another, with sprinklings of the odd ones throughout.

We spoke of what we knew of each person, sometimes gleaning their religion, or perhaps their profession. It was interesting what details we could figure out, and just how much we truly didn't know.

Throughout all this, we admired the trees, the flowers, the mushrooms, the birds; we admired all that we could. And all the while I was leading us gently towards one particular grave, that of Rebecca Gibbs. Born around 1808 in Philadelphia, Rebecca came to Canada to escape the plight of the Black people in the US. On her tombstone, she is listed as a "laundress, poet, nurse". On the back of her tombstone is her beautiful poem, "The Old Red Shirt". It's a simple poem, almost too simple by today's standards, but beautiful and relevant, nonetheless.

We read the poem, Shoghi and I, and just stared at her grave afterwards, tears in our eyes. We said a prayer for her soul, thankful for this little bit of beauty she brought into this hard world that no doubt begrudged her a place.

Afterwards, as we walked away, I asked him, "Do you think anyone remembers how well she could stitch a shirt? How wonderful she was at applying starch to a collar?"

"No", he replied, looking at me as if I were crazy.

"In a hundred years, do you think anyone will recall how well I could close a jump ring? How nice my bracelets may be?"

"No", he said, looking a bit more thoughtful.

"What do you think they will remember, if anything?"

"Probably your words."

"What will you do, in your lifetime, that people will remember? That's the question you need to ask yourself. Because we will all end up here, some day. Every one of us. Every one you know. Every one you see. And most of us will not do anything in our life that will be remembered, and that's a shame. But you and I, we're aware of this. We can make a conscious choice to do something that might be worth remembering, like Rebecca's poem."

As we walked away, there was much silence, but there was also joy. We pointed out more beautiful trees, and showed each other more nice tombstones, but we both thought about our lives, too, and what we could do to make it a life worth living.

We continued on to the museum, but I'll tell you, we both saw it with very different eyes now.

The Old Red Shirt
     by Rebecca Gibbs, laundress, poet and nurse

A miner came to my cabin door,
His clothes they were covered with dirt
He held out a piece he desired me to wash,
Which I found was an old red shirt.
His cheeks were thin, and furrow'd his brow,
His eyes they were sunk in his head
He said that he had got work to do,
And be able to earn his bread.
He said that the "old red shirt " was torn,
And asked me to give it a stitch
But it was threadbare, and sorely worn,
Which show'd he was far from rich.
O! miners with good paying claims,
O! traders who wish to do good.
Have pity on men who earn your wealth,
Grudge not the poor miner his food.
Far from these mountains a poor mother mourns
The darling that hung by her skirt,
When contentment and plenty surrounded the home
Of the miner that brought me the shirt.

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