“The Glen Rock Book of the Dead” by Marion Winik. What follows is the first part of this fine book. Tony Toledo
“When an elephant dies, its family members engage in intense mourning and burial rituals, conducting week long vigils over the body, carefully covering it with earth and brush. They revisit the spot for years afterward, caressing the bones with their trunks, often taking turns rubbing their trunks along the teeth of a skull’s lower jaw, the way living elephants do in greeting.” Charles Siebert
Author’s Note: I got the idea to make a series of portraits of dead people I have known, or whose lives have touched me in some way, during a workshop taught by Jane McCafferty in January of 2007. She gave a writing assignment based on Stephen Dunn’s lovely poem “Tenderness”, in which the narrator remembers a woman he knew long ago.
This made me think of The Jeweler, who had passed through my life decades earlier. I scribbled down some lines about him, his paintings, and his mangos, then recalled the circumstances of his death, about which I had heard secondhand. At the same time, I felt my brain begin to crowd up, as if tickets to a show just gone on sale and all the ghosts were screeching up to the box office. I flipped to a clean page and started making a list of names. When the workshop ended and I went home to Glen Rock, I was still working on my list. I began to think I could make something like a modern version of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, except instead of fictional folks from a fictional town, my subjects would be real people and the link between them would be me.
For the next few months, I got up as close to dawn as I could. Already they would be waiting in my head. I’d let one into my office for a few hours and we’d have our little seance. This never seemed morbid or depressing to me. I have lost too many people, I think, to make talking and thinking about them an unpleasant thing to do. My life has been shaped as much by people who are no longer living as by people who are, and perhaps this has been particularly true since I moved, in middle age, to Glen Rock, a quiet place. Writing this book has been a chance to hang out with my friends.
In Mexico, they do something like this on El Dia de los Muertos: The Day of the Dead, which is observed on November 1 and 2 every year. On these days, people build altars to their loved ones with pictures and flowers and candles, with the old favorite sodas and books and T-shirts and cigarettes. Then they go to the cemetery and stay all night, praying, singing, drinking, wailing. They tell the sad stories and the noble ones, they eat cookies shaped like skeletons. They celebrate and mourn at once. Marion Winik, Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, January 2008
The Eye Doctor, d. 1969
My sister and I had been at sleepaway camp in Mildford, Pennsylvania, for almost half of our four-week sentence. Saturday, finally, was Visiting Day, when the parents would pull up to Nah Jee Wah’s gates in the family cars with boxes of brownies, packs of Twizzlers, forgotten hair brushes and sweatshirts, awaited as if crossing the river Styx to visit us in Hades. But the night before, the head counselor came to me in the mess hall. Our mother and father had called. Something had come up; they couldn’t make it. What could it be, I thought, what could have gone wrong? I paced the dusty paths around the compound all day, eyeing other children with their parents. We had a funeral to go to, my mother wrote that week in her letter. It was a while before I learned it was our eye doctor, a friend of the family, who had died.
I come from Nah Jee Wah so pity me, there ain’t a decent boy in CLC. And every night at nine they lock the door, I don’t know what the hell I came here for. Forty years later, our camp song is still stuck in my head, but my mother can only tell me the eye doctor was a classmate of Daddy’s from school, his family owned a liquor store in Asbury Park. He was a bachelor, hand served in the Army. She doesn’t think he was gay. Then she recalls the cause of death was an overdose of medication he took for back pain, perhaps intentional, perhaps not. He was addicted, she says.
Like the flap of a seagull’s wing that changes the course of all future weather systems on earth, his death was a cause itself. Before long my sister and I would see another eye doctor, would be sent to a camp we didn’t hate as much, one where I ate seventeen pieces of pizza in a contest, was caught stealing another girl’s china kitten, was in a production of Our Town performed for the parents on Visiting Day. It is remarkable to my mother that I remember the death of the eye doctor at all. Actually it’s not much of a memory-his moon face, my pearly eyeglasses, an empty picnic table- but it has turned out to be my job to collect things like that.
Story Loving Tribe, it is our job to collect stories, create stories, share stories. Marion Winik wrote wonderful stories of 51 people she knew who died in “The Book of the Glen Rock Dead”. This book makes me think of the storytellers I knew who have died. Hum, I might just submit a swap for next years Sharing the Fire titled “All Ready Gone: Remembering Storytellers Who Have Passed On.” This book just might be a delightful addition to your summer reading list. Ciao, Tony Toledo, May 13, 2016