A Return (Chatham Cemetery)

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(Photo of Louise Steinman by Beth Thielen)

Louise Steinman is curator of the award-winning ALOUD series and co-director of the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC. She is the author of three books: The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War; The Knowing Body: The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Performance; and most recently, The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation. Her work appears, most recently, in The Los Angeles Review of Books, and on her blog Crooked Mirror blog., where this essay first appeared. 

My friend Beth Thielen lives across the street from the rural cemetery in the town of Chatham, in New York’s lush Hudson Valley. On summer visits from bone-dry L.A., it’s a balm to walk between the pair of centuries-old sentinel maples into the cemetery’s vast silent greenspace; to stroll the rows of mossy granite headstones, shaded by ancient hawthorns and oaks.

I calibrate lifespans—the gravestones of women whose lives ended in their twenties in childbirth or during the flu pandemic. I ponder those who lived across the cusp of centuries and savor the musicality of their names: TenBroek and Van Tassell, DeMoranville. I always visit the graves of the three Civil War veterans of the Union Army’s “Colored Infantry,” whose names wind and rain have erased from granite.  Small headstones mark births and deaths of children who succumbed perhaps to whooping cough, diphtheria—sending my thoughts skittering to front page photos: young children now dying in besieged Aleppo.

Usually when we walk, we’re the only ones there.

A few days ago, we encountered a rare invasion:  pick-ups parked along the gravel drive; young men with weed whackers cleaning around the graves. We asked a friendly woman gathering up litter what was the cause of this intense labor on a hot afternoon? Didn’t we know about the soldier returning home? She pointed to a grave bedecked with American flags. That’s where the remains of P.F.C. George H. Traver, a Marine from Chatham, born in 1918, will soon be re-interred from a mass grass on the Pacific atoll of Tarawa. He died there in November, 1943, during one of the most hideous battles of the Pacific War.

Photo by Louise Steinman

He’ll be buried next to his mother, Nellie V. Cramer, who received a Western Union telegram on December 23, 1943: “Deeply regret to inform you that your son was killed in action in performance of his duty and in the service of his country.” New technology revealed the grave on Tarawa, and George’s remains were sent—with those of the other Marines—to an Army facility in Hawaii. He was identified by dental records and by the Boy Scout knife in his pocket. He’d requested from his mother in a letter. He wanted to carry into battle a souvenir from home.

Our tearful informant added that George’s mother waited thirty-five years for him, “until she couldn’t wait anymore.” For the ceremony coming up on August 29th, she told us, there would be “full military honors—a firing squad and all…” I know she meant a twelve-gun salute.

On our way back, we paused as we always do in front of the grave of another younger Chatham veteran, Joseph J. Wright. He was born in 1987, fought in Iraq, came home in 2012 and died in 2014.  By mistake, FED EX delivered the metal plaque from the U.S. Government etched with Joseph Wright’s birth/death dates to Beth’s doorstep on Cemetery Road. She searched out the young man’s obit, noting requested donations to the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The photo attached to the still-shiny granite headstone shows a handsome young man in uniform, “a beloved husband and father.”

Photo by Louise Steinman

At dinner that night, Beth and I were joined by a mutual friend who grew up in post-war Germany. We told her about Private Traver’s impending return, and the mother who waited 35 years. She then recalled a scene from her childhood: her young aunt sitting by the radio each night, listening intently to Deutsches Roteskreuz, the German Red Cross broadcast, hope fading that her lost soldier husband would be found somewhere.

No matter the war, someone is waiting at home. I learned this when I made the trip to Japan in 1995, to the small town of Suibara, to return a flag that belonged to a soldier named Yoshio Shimizu, who died in the battle of Balete Pass in the mountains of Luzon, the Philippines. My father acquired Yoshio’s flag during combat, and mailed it home to my mother.  Yoshio was twenty-one when he died in 1945. “You brought us back Yoshio,” one cousin told me. “The government just sent sand in a box.”

Photo by Lloyd Hamrol

On today’s early morning walk, I followed the path by the cemetery pond, surprising a great blue heron who took wing towards the cemetery’s newer, Jewish section. There are only a few graves so far, all recent. On the headstone of Saul Cohen, someone’s “beloved father and grandfather”—his kindred have left copious small stones—as is the custom. The summer sky is blue with voluminous moving clouds. Crows chant sporadically from the high branches of the elms.  The dead sleep their sleep and soon—after long delay, and in this long summer of our national discomfort, Private First Class George H. Traver, a native of this town, will join them.

Photo by Louise Steinman