Our Charlie


By the time my niece graduated from high school, I had perhaps 30 photographs of her — each slipped inside a Christmas card by her mother over an 18-year span–each one capturing a 1/60th of a second on her timeline: from infant to smiling schoolgirl with a missing front tooth to young woman. They are photos that I treasure.

Years later when she married and had her son, she began posting no fewer than a dozen photographs of him daily on Facebook. He is a cute little guy but by the time he was six months old, I’d lost interest, the way one tunes out a television commercial that has run a hundred times.

Less is more. Truly.

I think about this as I walk my dog in the cemetery near my house. It is a quiet place with old growth trees and a rolling terrain. There are benches along the paths to just sit and observe. We are not given much information here, so we must think.

The graves date from the early 1800s to the present. The names on some of the headstones are familiar to me because the streets and schools in our city bear their names. This is one more museum of the city–the history across centuries, now gathered together in areas across the grounds.

The war veterans are buried on a slight hill near the old stone chapel. Then, around a curving path, tall oak trees shade a group of identically shaped headstones. These are the graves  of the former residents of the Old Women’s Home. I read each name and nod an acknowledgement, wondering if they, like I, am offended by this final designation of an entire life. Were they not young girls once? Did they not once play games and laugh? Work samplers? Bake cakes? Get lost in a novel? Fall in love?

They were born at a time when the value of a woman’s life was determined by the wealth of her father or husband. The poor, the unmarried, were consigned to the Old Women’s Home.

I shake off the thought and move on, towards the front gate and the oldest graves. We steer towards a small lane in search of shade and approach a solitary headstone in an unusually empty area of the cemetery. The 8-word inscription is elegant in its simplicity:

Our Charlie
May 23, 1873
Oct. 3, 1873

There are no other headstones to indicate the presence of nearby graves. Perhaps his parents or siblings are buried nearby but I do not know that. I do not even know his last name.

All I know is that there is a solitary headstone for a 4-month-old infant who was loved, whose death was mourned. And here in this quiet place, over 140 years later, I tell him that his short life was not lived in vain. His life mattered.

And he is still remembered.

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