I also took the time to pay a visit to my recently widowed godmother. Turns out that her husband and my godfather Tom McLaughlin died last August, but I only found out about it last week thanks to a cousin of mine. In the past, I’d hear such news via my mother, but she passed away last April. It’s been a hell of a year.
After my visit, I drove to the nearby St. Anne’s Cemetery in Three Rivers, Massachusetts to pay my respects at Tom’s grave. He had a good life. Tom served in World War II and later became a fireman in that town. I always knew him as a most affable guy who never had a bad word for anyone. He and my godmother weren’t unfamiliar with tragedy, however. In 1983, their son who was my age, died in a motorcycle accident.
I will never forget the day about 10 years ago I paid an impromptu visit to that cemetery. Driving by on my way to yet another visit with my mother, I turned into th quiet field of gravestones with plans to stop by my grandparents grave. What I didn’t expect was my reaction to seeing so many familiar names. My godparent’s son; my mother’s beloved cousins; a few of her friends and their husbands; my own cousin’s young wife who succumbed to cancer.
Suddenly that field wasn’t simply a place we told ghost stories or dutifully laid flowers at Memere’s grave on Memorial day, or to say our final good-byes to a deceased relative. This field had come to embrace enough of my friends and family to make a palpable impact. I don’t know how it works for others, but in that moment, the importance of this ritual and the finality it signifies crystalized. Whoever remarks about the shortness of life, says so mindful of these sad stones.
Now, it seems every year another familiar name appears on those stones. Almost everyone from my mother’s generation, save for her sister-in-law and a handful of her childhood friends is gone. The people I watched as a child whoop it up at family gatherings, and who came to life in my mother’s tales of her youth, lie in that ground. A few of my own generation has joined them. Many more soon will.
And with them, little bits of the town die as well. The Three Rivers of my youth hardly sparkled like a city on the hill, but compared to the doldrums of today, Three Rivers was a veritable boomtown back then.
Maybe the taunting nip of the autumn air and the onset of winter darkens my impressions of these old stomping grounds, but people I see walking the crumbling sidewalks exude more cynicism than hope — a perilous imbalance. Everyone looks bored. With so little to do while waiting for the coming of the casinos, who could blame them? The old guard, the men and women who built what we can no longer afford to steward, have left us to our own devices, taking the instruction manual with them.
We better figure out something soon. For far-too-long, we’ve floundered about in a desperate search for answers or a magic bullet that will bring prosperity and productive people back. I know the answers are out there, hanging like fruit in an abandoned, overgrown orchard. Someone just needs to cut through the the weeds and pick them. Until then, little, once-proud towns like Three Rivers slip away like the water in the rivers that give it its name.