“Mommy, you know so many dead people!”
— Lynn DeAngelis, American social observer, b. 1985
Lynn was a few weeks shy of ten when she made the remark quoted above as she followed me through the Charles Evans Cemetery in Reading, Pennsylvania. Ron and I had taken her and another child on a last-day-of-summer outing. We’d visited some sites (including a playground) associated with William McCormick, a nineteenth-century Reading newspaper publisher in whom I had a research interest. Then we visited the Hain’s Cemetery beside the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, the site of the family plot that inspired the historical novel I was working on. After a picnic at Blue Marsh Lake, we ended the day with a stroll through the Charles Evans, a splendid example of the nineteenth century rural or garden cemetery. I wanted to find the burial site of Louisa Bissinger who, on August 17, 1875, in despair over her husband’s marital infidelities, drowned herself and her three children in the Schuylkill River by tying a basket full of stones around her waist, gathering the children in her arms, and jumping into the water.
On the way to finding the Bissingers (the plot includes the second wife as well — what fiction writer could pass this up!) I pointed out some of the prominent citizens whose stories I’d come to know from my research into “domestic life among the Pennsylvania Germans of nineteenth century Berks County, Pennsylvania” (the set phrase I developed in those days to answer the question “What do you write about?”). Among them was a Civil War general named Schimmelpfennig whose story I cannot now remember without consulting my notes, but which I knew then, and related to the two ten-year-olds and my patient husband who, fortunately, has some interest in the Civil War.
That Lynn should think the people whose burial sites I’d taken her to (including that of Edgar Allen Poe when she was four) were my friends is probably to be expected, given her child’s perception of the world then. Her remark was brought back to me today, however, when a friend exclaimed at the number of funerals and memorial services I attend. I’d told him about last week’s service for a former teaching colleague, and the service this afternoon for a woman who had been one of the members of my Thursday morning study group. I was also today spreading the word among my friends about the death of a high school classmate whose funeral Mass will be next Saturday.
We’re the same age, he said, yet he knows maybe two people a year who die, and he doesn’t go to their funerals. He wondered if maybe all this mourning was contributing to my depression.
I don’t think it is. I acknowledged today that I am, indeed, in a period of depression, defined as experiencing for at least two weeks a constellation of signs, including self-loathing, inability to concentrate, and loss of pleasure in daily activities that one usually enjoys. I don’t feel hopeless — I have way too much confidence in my extensive support system and my understanding of the temporariness of an episode with winter onset for that. But it takes a good deal of positive self-talk to keep the optimism alive, and that itself can be exhausting. The fact that I know so many dead people is, I think, testament to how large my social network is. I’ve risked loss by becoming engaged with others. To isolate myself in an attempt to avoid attachments that might lead to loss would engender a different, and more deadly, depression.
I met the classmate whose death I learned of today on the first day of ninth grade when she was assigned the seat in front of me in homeroom. We didn’t exactly keep in touch after graduation, even though she lived in the same township I do, in a neighborhood two hills west of mine. But we always greeted each other warmly at our five-year interval reunions, did some catching up, and parted with fond remembrances of our time together in homeroom and in Spanish class. And in one of those indications of how there are vibes out there, I had occasion to think of her specifically and to write her name while I was doing some journal work this week recalling my history with keeping a journal. I started a diary (abandoned quickly and since lost) that first day of ninth grade, and I wrote a little character sketch of her. I actually remember that I wrote about her specifically, noting her friendliness and her ability to make others feel comfortable in strange surroundings, qualities noted in her obituary. I can still see the two of us sitting in Room 303 of Tracy Hall, in the row beside the windows with a view of the football field. That’s a powerful presence, to be remembered so specifically across almost fifty years.
Attending someone’s funeral or memorial service doesn’t leave me any sadder than learning of the death itself does. In fact, it helps contain the grief, giving it boundaries. I have learned while writing this piece tonight that evidently my reading comprehension is as impaired as my ability to enjoy everyday activities. I thought my classmate’s obituary said that a memorial Mass will be held on Saturday, and I made a mental note to call the church rectory on Thursday if I did not yet know the time. Another classmate has informed me that the newspaper piece actually says the Mass was held on Saturday, meaning yesterday.
I have said in recent essays that the strongest medicine for me during this siege of physical illness unto mental depression has been in the remembering and the being remembered. And so it is tonight. Thank you for reading so much, so often.
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