“Just one word a day,” Mrs Barnes, my year 11 English teacher, lectured my class back in 1974.
“Open your dictionary at a random page and point your finger to a word, any word,” she said. “Memorize it’s meaning and your vocab will improve no end.”
I was an eager student, ready to impress, inspired by the great masters of the written word. Despite my literary ambitions, I never showed any signs of the talent I yearned. Sadly, I only randomly opened my dictionary that once and found my finger drawn to a word that I can still remember to this day. It was a strange little three syllabled word that sounds heavy as it lifelessly thuds off my tongue. I had neither heard it before, nor did I know what it meant. But now that I look back at that day of discovery, I can see that fate had silently mirrored my future calling as I stared down the letters of truth.
Be true to oneself! That is a mantra that is bandied around throughout one’s life, but sometimes it takes a lifetime to realize what meaning it holds for you. I faced my truth more than forty years ago; a symbol was printed in the dictionary in black and white. But sometimes it takes a lifetime to work it out.
My Grandmother was my teacher, she took me by the hand. And then one day she passed away before I could possibly understand. She hailed from a family of twelve children, who she embraced into her daily life along with their families and theirs. She was a staunch protestant who attended church each week. Thus her life was filled with priests, fellow parishioners and their families as well. She was a person who embraced people which showed on the day of her funeral when the church was bursting at the seams, not being able to accommodate the hundreds of mourners who came to bid her farewell.
Nanna’s life was full of farewells. Almost every week she attended a funeral of a relative, a friend or someone she barely knew. She’d return home with a running commentary about the grieving families and recite from the various eulogies, the highs and lows of a person’s life. She was a self-proclaimed spoke woman for the dead. The priest, her friend, who recited the eulogy at her own funeral said “she was the closest to a saint, one can be.”
My uncle explained one day, less eloquently, “Most mothers collect teaspoons or tea towels, but my mother collects funerals.”
I can also thank my grandmother for my ongoing love affair with old church graveyards and cemeteries. Nanna’s love of her family carried into the beyond; her bond with family and friends never relinquished when they were gone. I recall visiting graves with Nanna, taking offerings of flowers and sitting quietly as she tended to the grave with the same care and dedication she applied when the loved one was alive. It was from those visits that I learnt the value of those inscriptions carved in stone; the names and dates that genealogists crave. But I didn’t have to seek out graves to learn the names as I gleaned them from the many conversations I was privy to as a child.
Life and death are intertwined along the twisted branches and winding vines that form our family tree. It is not until we reach the middle of our lifeline that we wonder about those who sit in the far reaching limbs at the top of our trees. Those faceless names have already spent their lives and we are left peering through the dappled light that shines through the leaves of time, yearning to know who they really were.
Some think it morbid, but it is important to seek out the dearly departed; to commemorate their legacy. And, often we cannot know our true selves until we see our own lives mirrored in those of our ancestry. As I wander aimlessly through graveyards of old, I admire the poetic inscriptions, I ponder upon the sad circumstances of the person’s demise and pay attention to the symbols carved upon the headboards of their eternal beds of rest.
Life is full of symbols, like that little word I discovered in the dictionary 41 years ago. According to the dictionary, Cadaver means corpse. It is a symbol of death. I believe there is a reason I have remembered it all these years. As I said, life and death are intertwined. From now on, I shall think of that strange little word as being representative of lives that were, lives that beg to be remembered eternally.