Friday, January 13, 2012

Visiting the Cemetery

The Blanchard family plot at Restland cemetery in Dallas

My folk don’t visit cemeteries. The dead are out of sight and out of mind. So it must have surprised my brother when I asked to see the family plot on a short visit to Dallas this month. I was surprised that he so readily agreed. Neither of us had visited the family burial plot since my grandmother’s funeral in July of 1977.

My grandparents on my father’s side are buried in a large commercial cemetery right out of The Loved One; not the Evelyn Waugh novel, but the Tony Richardson movie. “Restland” is the name of the cemetery, and my family kept a plot there since 1928. I can remember when Restland cemetery was in the middle of the countryside on Greenville Avenue between Dallas and Richardson. Cattle used to graze in pastureland opposite the main gate. Today, suburban sprawl surrounds it with apartment complexes, office buildings, strip malls, and cul-de-sac neighborhoods. Far from suffering from the change, Restland is a booming business. The cemetery almost doubled its size since my grandmother’s funeral in 1977. And, it is aggressively seeking out new, potentially high paying customers. Restland now incorporates Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, a measure of how much Dallas has changed since my grandmother died.
My brother and I drove in his red pickup truck into the main gate. My brother claimed to have a vague idea of where it was, but after 5 minutes in a wilderness of gravesites, we headed back to the gatehouse for some information.

A well-dressed gentleman greeted me with a combination of courtesy and wariness. It took awhile to find the Blanchard gravesites. He had to pull out some old maps and dig up some old records on an out-of-date computer program, and it didn’t help that I had misspelled a couple of names. We found it. He gave me a copy of the map, and got in his car and guided us out to where the plot was. When we arrived, he said that this was an old part of the cemetery that hadn’t seen much activity in a long time. My brother worried that he’d give us big sales pitch, but no, he just said goodbye and drove off.

Four people are buried in the Blanchard plot, my grandfather Ray, my grandmother Nell, and my step-grandfather, Paul Ebstrup. I discovered that my great grandmother, Mintie Ann is buried in the plot. I’m guessing that my grandfather Ray bought the plot when she died in 1928.

My great grandmother; all I know about her is that she was in Galveston during the 1900 hurricane and lived to tell about it. There are pictures of her, but I don't have any.

Great grandmother was the first one buried here.

It is remarkable how much a mute little tombstone and a patch of ground conceal. They indicate nothing of the drama and the history of the lives that ended there.

Grandfather Ray about 1920

Grandfather Ray in 1907

Grandfather Ray on the right with a friend in Dallas about 1910

I never knew my grandfather, Ray Burleigh Blanchard. All I know about him is what my father told me, and the few relics and records that survive. He was born the second of 2 sons in Warsaw, MO. His older brother was named Frank. Their father died when they were young. They both had to find work to support the family. They ended up working together in a telegraph office in Hannibal, MO. For reasons unknown and forgotten, my grandfather ran away from his job and from home when he was about 17 or 18 and spent 3 years riding the rails all through the Midwest and South. He carried a wicker suitcase, which we still have, and kept a diary in Morse code that my cousin Gerry has. Gerry had the diary translated and it doesn’t say much. It’s mostly very terse records of what town he passed through, the weather, etc. Sometimes there is a revealing little detail of pawning a coat or about how little he had to eat, but not much else. There was enough information in the diary for Gerry to map out grandfather’s travels. His older brother Frank moved to Dallas to work for Western Union, and offered my grandfather a job with the company. My grandfather accepted and worked for Western Union for the rest of his life. My father said that Frank went on to be a major executive in the company and moved to New York to work in the company headquarters. My father told me that grandfather never rose higher in the company than a small district sales manager because he was involved in a failed attempt to unionize telegraph workers in the 1920s.
My grandfather served in the Army Signal Corps during WWI. He was stationed down in the Rio Grande Valley when the American government worried that the Germans might goad Mexico into attacking or raiding border towns. When that didn’t happen, he was stationed in San Diego. While there, a rich society woman became smitten with his good looks and married him. She very quickly discarded him after only 3 months. He returned to Dallas and to Western Union and spent the Great Depression in relatively secure, though modest employment.
My father was very close to my grandfather. Both men shared a taste for practical jokes. My grandfather’s jokes were harmless. When my father brought a stray dog home, my grandfather lectured my dad that he was responsible for feeding and cleaning up after the dog. When my father left the room, grandfather put a rubber dog poop on the floor and demanded that my father clean it up. When dad very squeamishly tried to pick it up with a wad of tissues, grandfather picked it up and put in his pocket and walked off. My father’s idea of practical joking was not quite so harmless. When he was a teenager, he stole garden furniture, hubcaps, bicycles, and vandalized trolleys stopping traffic sometimes. How he avoided reform school is a mystery to me.
My grandfather died very suddenly and unexpectedly in 1948. He went in the hospital for routine gall bladder surgery and died of a heart attack during the night. The hospital had not yet informed his family when they arrived to visit. My father discovered him in his hospital room with a sheet pulled over his head.

Grandma Nell (right) in Dallas sometime in the 1930s

My great aunt Helen and her sister, Grandma Nell in Colorado in 1951

Grandma Nell with a very awkward adolescent me in 1975

I remember Grandma Nell vividly. That my feelings about her are mixed is an understatement. For all of her piety, she came across as a vaguely louche character. She was a bad alcoholic with a bad temper. She could be a very mean drunk. I remember that my mother was very reluctant to spend much time with her, anxious that my brother and I not be exposed to the loud drunken brawls she had with her sister Helen, or with her older son, my uncle Ray. She sometimes flirted with me and with my brother, especially when we were teens. That made us both very uncomfortable.
Though born and raised in the Methodist Church, my grandmother’s religious tastes inclined more toward the Biblically literal and apocalyptic than the Methodist Church allowed for at the time. She was a devoted fan of Pat Robertson and The 700 Club toward the end of her life. At the same time, my grandmother believed passionately in astrology and apparently was quite expert at it. After her death, we discovered that she made star charts for me, my brother, and for my cousins Gerry, Julia, and Beth when each of us was born. Yes, I know that belief in Astrology is inconsistent with Christian belief in Free Will, but all of this ran together in my grandmother’s mind. For her, the world swarmed with spirits both good and bad. The spiritual warfare in the cosmos was palpable reality for her. Like many fundamentalist Christians, hers was a very Manichean view of the world as a battleground between the forces of Light and Darkness with the outcome uncertain for each of us.
In all fairness to my grandmother, her life was hardly a bed of roses. She began her life in destitution. She was born in Clarendon, Texas in the Panhandle. Her mother came from a prosperous family in Waxahachie, Texas. Great grandmother fell in love with a man her family did not approve of, and the couple eloped. Sadly, the family was right. Great grandfather turned out to be a drunk who drank away all of her money, and then abandoned her and their children (5 I think) in Clarendon. Great grandfather later died of tuberculosis in a state hospital in Terrell, Texas. When my grandmother was born, her mother and siblings were sharecroppers working in the cotton fields. My grandmother spent her childhood picking cotton and hauling water from a public pump in the town. My father said that there were times when they were so hard up that they had to take shelter in the town jail. One of my grandmother’s brothers died of alcoholism. One of her sisters died of tuberculosis (my father remembered her; he said that she had her own plate and silverware and that they were thoroughly boiled after she ate).
The family eventually moved to Midlothian just south of Dallas.
She married my grandfather sometime in the 1920s. My grandmother had a mean streak. My father recalled (without any bitterness or irony) that she used to beat him and his older brother Ray with a riding crop filled with buckshot. That’s not as exceptional as it sounds. Texas always believed in the iron-rod-of-discipline school of child rearing, especially for boys. That was still true when I was young. I doubt things have changed much.
When grandfather died in 1948, she married again in 1949 to Paul Christian Ebstrup, an immigrant from Denmark. He died in 1974.
My grandmother was born poor, but she did not die poor. Where exactly her money came from I’m not sure and neither is my mother. It may have all come from my uncle Ray who for a time was very rich from banking and real estate.
My grandmother died in the summer of 1977 of a heart attack apparently in her sleep. My father discovered her in her apartment in bed. She had been dead for 2 weeks. My father discovered both of his parent’s deaths.
Grandmother had her problems, but if it wasn’t for her, none of the rest of us would be where we are today. Probably her biggest saving grace was that she valued education, unlike a lot of other people from that poor hardscrabble part of Texas. She never finished grade school, but both of her sons went to college. Her oldest son Ray went to Rice University on scholarship and graduated with honors. My father went to college (against his will), and barely finished with an engineering degree. Grandma Nell certainly encouraged me even when I disappointed my own mother and studied art.

Paul Ebstrup in 1951

My father and Paul Ebstrup about 1949; my father was very fond of Grandfather Paul.

Grandfather Paul on his way to Copenhagen in May, 1959

I remember my Granddaddy Paul very fondly, but not very well. So much time has gone by since he died in 1974. There is so little that I know about him that I can be certain of. I’ve heard lots of disparate stories about him, but nothing like a coherent narrative of his life. I remember him as the very embodiment of rectitude, decency, and kindness in the midst of my melodramatic decadent Texas family. All of those characters in that bad Tennessee Williams play that was my family behaved themselves around him. He was hardly commanding. He certainly was not some kind of grumpy Wilfred Brimley type (though he looked the part). I never remember hearing him raise his voice, even in anger. He was nothing less than perfectly kind to me, my brother, and especially to my cousins. My cousin Gerry adored him (Grandfather Paul protected Gerry and his sisters from the drunken rages of my Uncle Ray and Grandma Nell), and even my mother, who hated just about every one of her in-laws, loved Grandfather Paul. He commanded great respect just by quietly being himself.
He was an immigrant from Denmark who spoke with a Danish accent. He came over to the USA with his brother Eric. From what my father told me, they came over together because they were both misfits in their family. I’m not sure when they came over. Somewhere along the line, grandfather Paul was a concert pianist. He kept a baby grand in the apartment he shared with my grandmother in Dallas. He played it for us from time to time, usually big showy Romantic things by Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky. Somewhere along the line, he sold insurance, according to my father, and also tried to start a farm and almost starved to death in the attempt.
What I do know about him for sure is that he and his brother Eric started one of the very first ski lodges in Aspen, Colorado in about 1950 back when Aspen was a forgotten half-abandoned old mining town. They built The Blue Spruce ski lodge on the corner of East Durant and Monarch right across the street from Wagner Park. There’s not a scrap of it left now. Grandfather Paul and Grandma Nell managed it personally for many years, until about 1965. I could have been born and raised in Aspen (and joined the rest of the natives in the trailer parks outside town when the plutocrats moved in). Eric painted all of the pictures that hung in the rooms of the lodge. I now own 2 of them. Grandfather Paul decorated the front lawn of the lodge with an old street lamp he brought back from Copenhagen. My grandparents offered my father the job of managing the lodge, but he refused, wisely since customer service was not one of my father’s talents. Grandfather Paul loved Colorado, and loved the mountains. He learned to ski after the age of 50, and according to my father upset my grandmother by being something of a daredevil on the slopes.
My grandmother decided to sell the lodge in 1970, a move that broke my grandfather’s heart. He spent the happiest years of his life in Colorado and left only reluctantly.
He died in 1974 of a heart attack following gall bladder surgery.
According to the evidence he left behind after his death, Grandfather Paul was a very literate man. I inherited his copies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Nabokov’s Speak Memory. He also had numerous titles in Danish and German including a volume of Goethe. These were not display editions, but cheap to mid-price books that were read.
I deeply regret that he is not around now. I wish I could have known him better.

Me with my brother Brian visiting the Grandparents about 1963

We visit cemeteries to remember our dead, who never really leave us. We also go there to reflect upon the brevity of life. Those complex and dramatic lives are now each a silent tombstone and a quiet patch of grass. All of the 125,000 or so tombstones in that cemetery bear witness to lives that were unique, unprecedented, and that will never be repeated. In the end, we own nothing. We don’t own anything in any final or absolute sense. Everything we have, even our own bodies, is ultimately on loan, to be reclaimed by the earth from which it came. Our lives and all the projects and ambitions that fill them are but a flicker in the end. Wealth and power exist to be lost or stolen (as my uncle found out the hard way). They too return to the earth from which they came, and always sooner than we would like. We will all die, and those who remember us will die, and the world will roll on ruthlessly over our graves filling our places and forgetting us as it gets on with the business of living. And yet, there was never anyone like each of us before, and there will never be anyone like each of us again. May all those who remember us do so happily.

My brother Brian


My shadow


susan s. said...

You must have posted some of this before. I seem to remember seeing some of these pictures before. And I remember reading parts of this story of your family. You know a lot more about yours than I remember about mine.

Did I read this correctly? Both your Grandmother's husbands died of heart attacks after gallbladder surgery? What a coincidence. Gallbladder surgery must be a lot easier on the body now than then. I hardly hear of anyone dying from it anymore!!

Counterlight said...

No one was supposed to die of gall bladder surgery back then either, but both grandpas did.

Yes, I have posted some of this before.

Counterlight said...

As I read the names on these stones, it occurs to me that we are definitely not royalty.

Eric said...

Have been reading your blog for some time now. Love it all ... the art history, the Episcopal pieces, and especially those like this one which are simple about life.

Eric said...

Hah! Simply not simple. Scotch will do that to my spelling.

JCF said...

Wonderful post, Doug.

Grandma Nell: mix of mean drunk and fundy religion? Scary! [Which, of course, doesn't mean you didn't love her]

I haven't seen my paternal grandparents' graves since my grandmother died in *1973*: I really need to go (Fresno, about 3 hours from here).

Tristan Alexander said...

1907 Granpa Ray was CUTE!

Frank D. Myers said...

Insightful post; interesting especially to someone who grew up surrounded by tombstones of the ancestors (and still lives among them)

Counterlight said...

Yes, young grandpa Ray was very cute, and a lot of people thought so at the time.

it's margaret said...

Christianity. Astrology. Free will....

Got me thinking Doug --with the hint of male melancholy I tasted in this piece... --Yes, we have free will to choose... but we are still subject to things like gravity and the pull of the moon. I see the observation of astrology not so much as a denial of free will but the reckoning of gravity and the pull of the moon... we are subject to natural cycles and the stars....

Besides, how much free will do we exercise from the grave? Which leaves me only in one place: God reigns. All ways. All times. Even rules the stars and pull of the moon --so when we mark these forces in our lives, we are only seeing the face of God in a new light.

Well, at least that's the way it seems early on a Sunday morning before the sun rises!

See you at the altar, dear brother.

Counterlight said...

Thanks Margaret, though I'm not quite sure I see the gender specificity in my melancholy.

it's margaret said...

(I guess because I imagine you are!!! --male, that is!!!)