He was always sort of a myth. My uncle Johnny, who died in childbirth in 1918. The family would talk about him briefly from time to time. But it didn’t seem like there was much to talk about. Poor guy. Didn’t even get a chance to get started.
He was my mom’s older brother. He preceded her in birth by two years. He was a a breech baby. That is, he came out backwards. In those days of home birth, that would not have been a problem for a doctor to correct, but no doctor was available. Uncle Johnny had the bad luck of being born during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Every doctor was overwhelmed with the cases of influenza, many of them fatal. In fact, more people died of the flu in 1918 than died in the battles of World War I that same year.
My grandmother never talked about it very much. It must have been too painful a memory. But I do remember visiting Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, IL when I was a little kid. Johnny had been buried in the plot of family friends. The Conways were gracious enough to let my uncle share their plot. The cemetery which was many miles away from our home on the South Side of Chicago. I remember being a little confused by the reaction of my mom and grandmother that day. I was too young to fully grasp the tragedy.
Years later, I moved to an area much closer to the cemetery and as I would pass by sometimes I would remember my earlier visit to the plot and mention that a close relative was in Calvary, but I had no recollection as to where the grave might be and whose name was on the marker.
That changed last year when I was playing golf with a retired postal worker who told me of his part time job giving tours of several historic cemeteries, including Calvary. I told him my uncle’s story and that I had always wanted to return to pay my respects. He told me to go there and ask in the office. They had an extensive record of all of those buried there and could help me find the grave.
I always meant to, but something always got in the way. Then, yesterday, my wife and I happened to pass by Calvary on our way to a store in Evanston. She encouraged me to stop in. A kiosk in the office had the names of the interred listed alphabetically, listing their names, dates of death and age at time of death.
We found him easily, but the register said he died at the age of seven days, not at birth, as I had previously thought. That made my grandmother’s hidden grief seem all that much more real to me. The man in the cemetery office was very patient and produced a detailed map of the plot. But said that many of the markers in this ancient burial ground had been grown over and I might not be able to find the exact spot.
We drove the several hundred yards from the office to the general area of Uncle Johnny’s final resting place. He was right. A lot of graves were overgrown with grass. Even though the cemetery workers were diligently cutting the grass, the stones were sinking into the earth and many were totally obscured. We had little hope of finding the exact spot.
I began pacing off the amount of steps from the road that I thought would correspond to the spot on the map that they provided us. We were just about to give up when a friendly and helpful worker asked if we needed any assistance. He climbed down off the back hoe that he had just used to dig a fresh grave and looked at the map. “It’s got to be over here.” He offered, taking us to a spot several rows over from where we had been looking.
He probed around with a spade in the soft earth until he hit something solid. It was the row marker that corresponded the the map. A few feet over was the headstone of the Conway family. An embossed piece of tape identified the row and plot number we had been looking for. This was it.
I was taken aback. I never thought I would find him and here he was. The guy I was named after was right there. I got a weird feeling of deja vu. I flashed back to that moment many years before when I stood on the same spot with my mom and grandma. I remembered that the trees were all around the edges of the area, but none near the spot. I remembered the buildings that surrounded the cemetery. I remembered the slight rise in the land a quarter mile from Lake Michigan. It all came back to me and I was sure we were in the right spot.
I said a brief prayer for my uncle. Here was a guy who wasn’t remembered by many people, possibly only me, and didn’t get many prayers said for him. So I’m sure he appreciated it.
I walked away from the experience happy to have found him, but also a little shaken. Life is so fragile and so precious and here was a guy who didn’t get to enjoy very much of it. But on some level, I’m sure he likes being remembered.