In 1987 I played hide-and-go seek in St Raymond’s Cemetery in Throggs Neck of The Bronx with six of my siblings and my mother. Our oldest sister Lisa was it and she was hiding in the Garden of Innocents.
It was a breezy, sunny October afternoon when we all trailed into the cemetery behind mom like chicks to a mother hen. The youngest siblings were first. *Walter was two and he lay in the stroller watching leaves dance around him Cirque du Soleil style. He giggled and cooed along with the pigeons. Then, there were my three youngest sisters, *Jane – four, *Gabriel – five, and *Isabella – six. The last in line were *Adam – seven and me – eight.
Isabella was carrying a wilted bouquet of flowers bought cheap from the curb side vendor selling them from his mobile florist: the back of a white van just off the street by the entrance. We would all give these flowers to Lisa when we found her.
When we all walked in Mom stopped. She held up a drawn out map and said, “Follow me and don’t wander off. None of you. Or you get the spoon.”
I wondered what spoon she had on her that day just in case I decided to defy her. I could handle the wooden spoon, but not the silver spoon. Sometimes she had both spoons on her and you squinted in preparation for pain when she reached into her arsenal and pulled out the silver spoon to put you in your place. Unlike the mercy of the wooden spoon, that silver spoon found open spots of skin and stung you swiftly. The welts would itch tortuously. The wooden spoon wasn’t so aerodynamic, so impact was bearable and you suffered minimal, though you had to be good at pretending it hurt more than it did or mom would try again and again.
We followed mom as she strolled Walter along the footpath that lead to the Garden of Innocents toward the back of the cemetery by a stone wall that bordered the Hutchinson Parkway. The blue mark on Mom’s map indicated the vicinity Lisa was hiding.
Mom stopped again to decipher the map. I dashed off and picked some dandelions to add to the bouquet Isabella was holding. This would have been worth the swift swat of the wooden or silver spoon just to have some flowers in the bunch that stood up with dignity. The ones in the bouquet looked like rigor mortis was setting in already. Mom never caught me.
We continued on doe-eyed, passing elaborate tombstones and finding people along the way like a guy with the last name Robinson. He had a hierophant chiseled on his thick headstone.
We found famous people too, like Billie Holiday, the jazz singer/songwriter whose career spanned nearly thirty years. I wondered if Lisa liked jazz. Maybe she and Billie were friends. Billie did say, “If I don’t have friends, then I ain’t got nothing.”
We found Joseph “The Baker” Catania, a gangster who was a major force in the East Harlem underworld in the 1930s. I wondered what he could be up to in St Raymond’s underworld.
There was also Mary Mallon, aka, “Typhoid Mary.” She was an Irish immigrant who found a career as a cook and spread typhoid to families employing her. It’s been estimated that she may have caused 50 fatalities. Mary spent the last twenty-three years of her life in quarantine and I wondered what freedom was like for her.
“What did I say to you about wandering off?” Mom asked, addressing everyone except Walter in the stroller. I popped out from behind a tombstone named Fusillo as did my brother and sisters from other spots. We all gathered back by mom and waited to see who would get the spoon first. None of us got the spoon.
Mom turned the map a couple of different ways and said something to herself to which she agreed and we continued on. We soon came to a small clearing not far from the stone wall bordering the Hutchinson Parkway. It was void of any headstones.
“This is it,” mom said “The Garden of Innocents. Look for Lisa and call out when you find her.” We scattered, careful not to step on anyone, especially Lisa. Mom lifted Walter from the stroller as we inspected plots on the ground. Debris covered a lot of the garden so we had to excavate, clearing away leaves and sticks. The ground was muddy and my feet sunk in at some spots.
“I’m going to find Lisa first,” I said, bending down to a 3×8 piece of stone that was flush with the ground in need of someone’s green thumb. The stone barely legible, read 1888. I couldn’t make out anything else.
“You’re not going to find her first, I am,” Isabella said, placing the bouquet of flowers in the stroller then moving through the garden quickly from one stone to another.
Lisa had been hiding in St Raymond cemetery for nine years since she was born back in 1978. I wondered as we rummaged through the Garden of Innocents how Mom dealt with emotional guilt. Did she wonder if she could have saved Lisa’s life by arriving to the hospital a few hours earlier? What reminded her of Lisa’s absence?
I was about to give up when I noticed mom standing at the stone wall weeping. Her make up ran down the sides of her face. She was the first one to find Lisa, spotting a stone on the wall etched with something she recognized. We all gathered around her staring at the wall in shared melancholy. In-between sobbing Isabella grabbed the bouquet of flowers from the stroller and we all took some to give to Lisa by placing them on the ground we landscaped in front of the wall.
“Mom, why isn’t Lisa in the Garden of Innocents?” We asked.
“Because only people with money can have their children buried there,” she said. “Everyone else is lined along this stone wall.” Mom wept.
We could hear the hum of the traffic along the Hutchinson parkway. There seemed to be no one else in the cemetery that day but us. I wondered why only people with money were the ones to determine who was allowed to enter the Garden of Innocents.
Was it because Lisa had no life span? She could have had a singing/songwriting career that could have lasted over thirty years. Or on the broad spectrum of things she could have turned out like “The Baker” or “Typhoid Mary.” We will never know.
Mom patted her eyes and said a prayer for Lisa. She asked God to continue watching over her little girl and to keep her safe. I wondered why God didn’t have the decency to see to it that Lisa was safe in the Garden of Innocents. Was God money hungry too? I thought.
We all cried a little longer for Lisa. Our older sister that never was, but who lived in our hearts. The little girl we would carry with us our whole lives and wonder who she could have been.
Mom placed Walter back into the stroller as we wiped our eyes, told Lisa we loved her, and headed back out the garden toward the cemetery’s exit. We passed everything we saw earlier and I think I felt how my mother felt nine years before when she gave birth to Lisa; drained and empty.
As we approached the exit Mom stopped and faced us. “When we leave here I want all of you to follow me and not wander off or you’ll get the spoon. I don’t want anyone getting hit by a car,” She said. “Everyone hear me, right?” We all nodded and said, “Yes.”
Mom turned around and we exited the same way we entered, trailing behind her like chicks to a mother hen.
I wondered as we left the cemetery if Lisa would have been able to tolerate the wooden or the silver spoon and if she would like the dandelions.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.