Saturday, November 12, 2011

Finding Mary Elsie

Secrets. I speak not of those inconsequential sorts, like how much a new pair of shoes really cost or one’s true hair color. But, of the heart-hurting kind. The kind of secret you keep, because that is easier than remembering.
I knew my mother-in-law had a stillborn baby girl when my husband was about two years old and somehow the grave site in an old cemetery had been lost. The knowledge was just there in the family, something no one ever talked about, a mother’s sadness not really discussed.
            So, I was surprised when my husband, Carl, felt moved to search out the resting place of a silent life. What better gift, he reasoned, could he give his mother on the occasion of her eighty-ninth birthday than to know for sure where her baby had been buried?
            My husband sat with his mother, told her what he wanted to do and asked if this would please her. At first she smiled and said knowing the grave site would be nice, but her baby wasn’t really there, she was in heaven. Then, over the next week she would call with another bit of information, a piece here, a piece there. It was like slowly plucking petals from a rose, afraid if we went too fast they’d all fall off, leaving only the stem.
Riffling through boxes of papers, my mother-in-law found a yellowed certificate filled out by a hospital nurse hoping to placate a young woman who wanted proof her child once existed. The record states a stillborn birth occurred at 12:01am on February 28, 1942.
            For seventy years she’d lived with a sadness tucked deep down, but not forgotten. She’d not forgotten how she complained to the doctor that her baby hadn’t moved in days. Then how sick she was with kidney poisoning when the baby, already a week dead, was born. The wound to her heart was made deeper when the nurse remarked that since no one was there to pick up the little body, they’d just put it out on the windowsill.  
            With her husband out of town, it was up to her father-in-law to see to the burial. Much later, when they looked for the grave, it couldn’t be found. A sadness to be sure, but then, she told us the baby’s name––Mary Elsie, named for both grandmothers.
            A name. Suddenly this fragile baby was related, she was family. And, it became even more important to know where she rested. We knew the cemetery. How hard could locating a tiny grave be?
            We began our search by obtaining a death certificate –– Infant Steele, death date February 28, 1942; cause of death, “taxemis of mother”; funeral director, Winterringers; place of burial, Red Fork Cemetery. For Mary Elsie, her entrance into the world also marked the date of her burial.
            We turned to funeral home records for an exact grave location. In the ensuing decades, Winterringers had been sold to Whisenhunt and subsequently to Ninde Funeral Home. Though we had the kind help of Ninde’s genealogist, time and a flood had destroyed countless records and none existed for the era we needed.
            Red Fork Cemetery, located in west Tulsa, was essentially a couple of acres in the middle of a community known as Red Fork. Mrs. Dollie Hennings, the treasurer, sold lots for between $2 and $8, depending, I suppose, on what she thought you might be able to afford. She gave people a numbered stick, told them to go out, pick a spot, and plant the stick. Mrs. Hennings died in 1943 and since records were kept either in her head or on slips of paper stuffed in a drawer, we were again stymied by a lack of documents.
            The city of Tulsa assumed management of the site in 1945. At some point, Red Fork Cemetery became known as Clinton Oaks. In 1975 the Girl Scouts performed a valuable service by inventorying the location. Comparing an old cemetery map and the inventory, we found four unidentified infant graves. Four.  But which one might be Mary Elsie’s?
            We made a visit to this most charming cemetery, hemmed in by houses and shaded by oak trees that sheltered leaning tombstones dating back to 1898. Two of the little graves fell within a rock-lined family plot eliminating those possibilities. The third had a small, unreadable marker and since a tombstone was never purchased for Mary Elsie, we moved on to the fourth site located along the north boundary of the cemetery.
            Sure enough, as indicated on both the map and inventory listing, a vacant spot sprouted tufts of grass, perhaps hiding what might remain of a long-ago burial. Surrounding tombstones confirmed activity in the 1940’s. Had we, at long last, found Mary Elsie?
            There was one final test, an unconventional one to be sure. Balancing a pair of divining rods gently in my closed fists, I first tested the accuracy of this predictor of a buried person’s sex by standing behind a tombstone. That way I was unable to see the name chiseled into the granite and perhaps unconsciously persuade the rods to the desired answer.
            Crossed wires indicated male, widely separated they signaled female. The slender rods wavered very slightly in my hands, then, as I drew nearer the monument, swung toward each other until they crossed. The name on the tombstone confirmed a male. I tested over and over at other gravesites until convinced of this primitive tool.
            Finally I walked toward the vacant spot. Did we really believe in such unscientific testing? Would there be enough material left in the ground to effect a reading? I held my breath and stepped forward, one step, two steps. Unbelievably the rods swung open. Female. Over and over, the test produced the same results. Nonsense or not, we took it as further proof we’d found Mary Elsie.
For weeks Carl and his brother, Larry, kept the secret of finding Mary Elsie’s burial site, but this was a healthy secret, drawing two brothers close over the complexity of unraveling a long-ago event. Together they purchased a small monument for a sister they never knew, granite in a shade of soft gray like the underbelly of a evening cloud, and schemed like two school girls on how to get their mother to the cemetery without her guessing the true reason.
            The September morning near her birthday couldn’t have been prettier when we pulled onto the lone road that curved through the small cemetery. At our arrival, a brisk stirring of sweet breezes set the giant oaks to whispering, and I imagined them confiding to each other … there the mother is, come, at long last, to see the resting place of her baby.
            Larry produced a wheelchair from the car trunk. He’d conveniently forgotten to remove it some weeks earlier, he told her, and since it was there why didn’t she let them take her on a tour of the cemetery. The brothers, first one and then the other, pushed her over lumpy ground, ground that had been upturned and pushed down a million times.
             She gasped, her hands went to her mouth, when she sighted the monument, fresh dirt packed against the cement base as if the burial had only been yesterday. And, for her, I suppose it was.
            Ultimately my mother-in-law was right in what she’d told herself for seventy years. Her baby wasn’t truly resting in a shady cemetery. She was in heaven. But, placing a long-overdue monument on Mary Elsie’s grave site acknowledged the existence of a tiny being. Mostly, however, it banished a painful secret and soothed a mother’s heart.
Did you know? A cross inscribed after a date on a headstone indicates either a stillborn birth or a birth and death on the same day.

FOOTNOTE:  Along the way, we’d been cheered on by many interested in this project. But we owe deep gratitude to Roy and Sherry Heim who helped in a thousand ways and guided us through the process of obtaining permission from the city to place a stone marker. John Wilcox with Eagle Peak Monument suggested the addition of a teddy bear on the stone, made sure of the timely placement of Mary Elsie’s monument, and provided the divining rods, schooling us in their use.