Note: Please bear with me. This is almost as hard to write about as it was to experience.
The first week of February, my partner and I headed from Palm Springs California to Vancouver Washington. We had just spent several weeks homeless and decided to try a friendlier area in hopes of better opportunities for both of us.
Along the way, we decided to stop in Santa Rosa California so I could get a copy of my birth certificate. Because of increased requirements since 9-11, and my legal name change in 1985, getting a copy through the mail would have been next to impossible.
My first complication was the fact that the County Clerk’s office can not take debit or credit card payments. We had to walk around the corner (about a 2 ½ block walk) to an ATM to get cash.
However, as I turned away from the clerk’s counter, a thought occurred to me.
My sister, Margaret Alicia, died in 1966, less than a day old. In some ways, her death became a focal point for some of the dysfunction in my family of origin. I never got to see her, as I, the eldest boy in the family, was less than a year old at the time and was not allowed into the hospital at the time. I wasn’t even taken to the funeral; if I had been, I most likely would not remember it anyway.
I had never been to her grave. My parents had never even told me where it was. When I was 18, my father took his third wife to visit my grandmother (his step-mother) and when he returned home I asked him if he had visited Alicia’s grave (I prefer to call my sister by her middle name, it is somewhat of a tradition in my family to do so, since first names are passed down to the next generation so often; my grandmother shares her first name with her youngest daughter and my mother gave my sister her first name). My father told me that they had not had time to visit the grave, because, when they visited his father’s grave, my grandmother had become hysterical.
I turned back to the clerk and asked how I could find out where my sister was buried, as I was reasonably sure she had been born and died in Sonoma County. The clerk told me that the information should be on her death certificate. I gave her my sisters name and approximate date of death, and the clerk confirmed that they had that record, and how much it would cost for a copy of it.
My partner Michael was very worried about me on the 2 ½ block walk to the nearest ATM. He wavered between trying to be cheerful and talking about how pretty the area was, and hovering over me. I could barely speak, because a lot of memories from my childhood were threatening to overwhelm me.
I tried to tell him what was going on at the time, but the words wouldn’t come. The best I could do was tell him that I had never known where she was buried, that I had never been to he grave. He immediately agreed, without me asking, we would, if the place could be found, go see it. We had no timeline for getting to Washington, anyway.
When we got back to the clerk’s office, I filled out the form to receive the copy of the death certificate (I had filled out the request for my birth certificate the first time I was there).
I waited, shaking, for the two documents to be printed on the official paper. I joked with the clerk about how the old copies of birth certificates had been negative images of the original certificate, with the county clerk’s seal stamped on in purple ink.
The clerk turned to me and said, “According to this, your sister was cremated.”
I was in shock. Any time the subject was brought up around my family (usually outside of my mother’s hearing), her final resting place was always referred to as “her grave” or “the cemetery where she is buried”. I admit I was scared to death, afraid they would tell me that the ashes had been given to my parents. Because that would mean that Alicia’s ashes were lost.
I can not think of a single family member, on either side, who has been cremated. I can remember conversations with relatives where they expressed utter contempt for the concept of cremation.
The clerk then handed me the death certificate and pointed to a particular field on the form. It listed Alicia’s final resting place as “Chapel of the Chimes”. Once I had my voice back, I got directions from her and another of the clerks, collected my birth certificate (which I admit I barely glanced at), thanked the clerks in the office profusely, and my partner and I left the building.
Outside, I double-checked the directions with a female plainclothes police officer who was getting ready to leave the parking lot, and we headed toward the Chapel of the Chimes.
I will freely admit that I wound up getting lost twice on the way. I also ran two red lights because of my distraction and almost drove down a one-way street the wrong way.
The Chapel of the Chimes is a nice enough place, from the outside. I noticed that there were some workmen working on the landscaping as I pulled into the parking lot.
Most of the doors of the Chapel of the Chimes (there are over eight doors leading from the outside) were wide open, which I found… nice. The Chapel is done in a Spanish Mission style that California builders are addicted to.
Stepping into the first door from the parking lot, most people who had never been to a… what do you call it? It is not a crematorium (cremations are now done at a different location). I wouldn’t want to call it a mausoleum, because it’s not at all that gloomy and macabre.
The walls are alternately covered with marble facades behind which are housed the ashes of the deceased, and large glass-fronted niches framed with dark hardwood, where ashes are kept in fanciful urns or containers which look like large, heavy books three or four inches thick. I found myself hoping that Alicia would be in one of those faux tomes, with her name and her dates inscribed on the spine. As a writer, that struck me as wonderful and apropos.
There was no way I could search name by name through the labyrinth inside that building, so we looked for an office (although Michael kept looking along the way). With the help of one of the workmen, we were directed to the office, and I spoke to the administrative assistant who basically runs the entire property (all the other employees of the company that now owns the Chapel work at other locations).
She took down the information, checked her computer… and my heart sank again as she winced. She told us that she needed to check some other records, and hurried from the office.
She returned after a few minutes from the records room in another part of the building, holding a yellowed index card. She tried to smile reassuringly as she led us to another part of the Chapel. I perked up a bit as we entered an open-air courtyard, with a small lawn in the center, surrounded by aging Madonna statues and decrepit fountains. I could see my sister resting in a place like this.
She went to a corner of the courtyard and turned to me as we caught up with her. She explained that the records from 1966 had not been transferred onto the computers yet, so she had to look it up by hand. She was still trying to smile, but it looked like she was dreading what was about to happen.
“They did this back then,” she explained vaguely. She pointed to the wall above us. “It was a less expensive alternative. Especially for babies.” And she handed me the notecard that had my sister’s name, birthdate, and date of death on it in her hand, and pointed above us again.
I scanned the marble squares for a nameplate that had my sister’s name on it. I looked at the note card the woman had given me. And looked up to where she was really pointing.
She was pointing to a small piece of marble, about a third the size of the other squares of marble. It was marked with the metal letters that spelled out the word “Babyland”. I looked at the note card, and saw the word “Babyland” on it. No plot number. No niche number.
I numbly handed the card back to her. “That’s it, then?” I asked. “Her name isn’t anywhere?”
“Just here,” she said, gesturing with the note card.
I’m not sure what was on my face, but she stepped back hurriedly. Michael however, stepped forward, catching me from behind before I could collapse.
Eventually, I asked the woman if we could be left alone for a bit.
Michael withstood my tears and my ranting. I was furious, and I was heart-broken, and I let him know it.
Eventually I got hold of myself again.
I held onto Michael, and quietly introduced him to his sister. Michael was crying along with me, I remember.
I had stopped at a store along the way, and bought a small token to pretty up Alicia’s “grave”. Michael, who is a few inches taller than me, stretched up to place my gift on the ironwork that was nearest “Babyland”, meant to hold a bouquet of flowers. I also took a couple pictures of her final resting place with my cellphone.
I went back to the office, and spoke the woman there. I asked her what, if anything, I could do to move my sister’s remains to a more appropriate place. In other words, a place where her name could at least be displayed and acknowledged.
She gave me a painful look and looked away. She asked me if my parents were still alive, and if I had any other siblings. As far as I know both of my parents are still alive, and I have four brothers (although only two of them are full blood relation to Alicia).
She explained that I would have to get permission from my parents and my brothers. Everyone would have to agree.
“Even that isn’t enough is it?” I asked, suddenly seeing another complication. “We don’t even know which… container is hers, do we?”
She admitted that was also an issue. She also advised me that the courts (who would have to order Alicia’s remains to be moved, at my request) could require the families of any other deceased person whose remains were in “Babyland” to give consent as well.
As we left the Chapel, Michael kept telling me that we would come back to visit Alicia as often as we could. Not that we have the money to make frequent trips to Santa Rosa, but I thanked him for the sentiment.
And this is the point where I part from the “present” of this episode.
In my family, as I was growing up, Alicia was practically a figure of legend. She had the most potent supernatural power any of us could imagine.
If Alicia had lived, my mother would not be insane. That’s what we told ourselves, anyway.
Alicia was conceived within two months of my birth. Anyone familiar with childbirth can tell you that this is not a sane decision. Within two months of Alicia’s death, my mother conceived my next-younger brother, K.
Shortly after my brother K. was brought home from the hospital, my mother was placed in a mental hospital, involuntarily, after claiming to the police that my father was trying to kill her. She locked herself in the bedroom of the partment with the baby and myself, and threatened to kill the two police officers that responded to her telephone call. When they broke down the door to the bedroom, my mother was trying to throw herself out a third story window.
Another myth in my family says that my mother waited over a year before conceiving again, with my youngest full brother, L. However, two of my aunts have admitted that they knew of at least two miscarriages during that time. My father and maternal grandmother have both mentioned that my mother had a lot of problems with pregnancy. After L. was born, doctors told my father she would not survive another pregnancy, and he got a vasectomy. My parents divorced approximately a year after that. My mother wanted another baby.
In other words, every time my mother failed to deliver a healthy baby girl, she conceived (or tried to) within two months.
My mother is incapable of attending a funeral for a child to this day. My grandmother’s only mention of Alicia’s funeral is that my mother had to be restrained and sedated. When I was five, my mother was ejected from a funeral for a little girl (the daughter of one of my father’s coworkers) because she made a scene of some sort.
Those relatives in my mother’s family who have even a little honesty will tell stories of my mother’s childhood that make it obvious that she suffered from mental illness at an early age. The family’s response to that was to pretend everything was okay and to make sure she got her way.
My outrage stems from the fact that my sister has, basically, an unmarked grave. I have looked around, and the practice of placing babies in unmarked graves in spots like “Babyland” is basically to provide a low-cost alternative to families who have no money.
At the time of my sister’s death, my godfather was earning very good money. While some in my family despised Uncle Wayne for his clownish behavior, he never forgot family. I knew him to drive hundreds of miles in the middle of the night if he was needed, because of a family emergency. I saw him buy groceries and pay for prescriptions if someone was in need.
My paternal grandfather, while no saint, was known for going to the wall for not only his children, but also for his step-children and his grandchildren. This was a man who handcrafted the stainless steel trachea tube my father required as a little boy due to surgery on his throat. This was a man decorated by five foreign governments as a war hero during World War II. This was a man who sent money to his ex-wife’s step-children for birthdays and Christmas.
My maternal grandfather was a union steward at the time, and quite likely could have received a hardship loan at the time.
My point is that there were plenty of family that would have helped my parents to give my sister a decent resting place. A small plaque with her name on it couldn’t have cost that much. And like I said before, nobody on either side has ever been cremated, to my certain knowledge.
As far as the requirements for me to move her, that is moot. My brothers and I have not agreed on anything since at least when I was 14. When I was 18, my brother K switched cigarette brands because he found out we were smoking the same brand. I congratulated my brother L on his report card once, when he was 17, and he immediately tried to drop out of school. No, I am not kidding.
I doubt whether Alicia ever crosses either K’s or L’s minds, ever. It might sound harsh, but K and L have always been, and according to what I have seen recently, completely self-centered. A sister they never knew or saw would have little hold on their thoughts, if any.
Whether my half-brother or my adopted brother (adopted by my father and his third wife) have standing in the case is anyone’s guess.
My father can barely be bothered to admit that Alicia ever existed. He has other priorities.
The only reason I would ever mention Alicia’s existence to my mother at this point would be pure spite and maliciousness. Her mental state has not improved over the years. Mentioning my sister to her would be cruel.
The words that I spoke to Michael that day will stay with me a long time. “Those bastards. This is so effing typical of them. Those self-centered bastards. They just threw her away. I bet they’ve never been back here, ever.”
My mother has not stepped foot in California since 1970, by the way. My father’s lie to me, when I was 18, is made more poignant by the fact that my grandfather is buried near Daly City. Visiting both “graves” in the same day would require driving through the heart of San Francisco traffic and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Later in the office, at one point I began laughing hysterically. Michael was ready to catch me again, when I turned to him and said, “I just realized. Alicia and me, we’re the only family either of us have left.”
My family wrote off Alicia bare days after her death. They stuck her in an unmarked hole in the wall and walked away.
When it became apparent to my family that my life included things that they could not understand, that was not in the family recipe book for how a person is supposed to live, they turned their backs and refused to acknowledge my existence.
It mystifies me how my parents could have disregarded Alicia’s existence so thoroughly, although it shouldn’t. I saw firsthand how that works at my maternal grandfather’s funeral. My family was trying so hard to pretend I didn’t exist, my grandmother got my name wrong when listing me as one of the pallbearers. The rest of the family acted as if I were a particularly offensive piece of statuary in front of the funeral home.
Among veterans, an unmarked grave is can be an outrage (that the soldier’s service counted for so little) or a poignant reminder (that soldiers serve for their country, not for glory and memorials). How many legal battles have been fought over ancient burial grounds, or even over the idea of moving an old cemetery to allow for urban expansion?
Quite frankly, are there words for this? Is there a way to express the kind of negligence or blatant disregard exemplified by something like this? I promise you, it’s not just because it’s my sister that I ask this. I would be as upset about anyone whose life, however short, has been, well, omitted is the word that comes to mind. History is the written record of the human race. When nothing is written, not even a gravestone, that person has been omitted.
I can talk about how this is a metaphor, it’s an allusion to some kind of human condition or short-coming. But that is just belaboring the obvious.
For obvious reasons, the song by Kenny Chesney, “Who You’d Be Today” can be hard for me to listen to. But it also helps to listen to it.
As a kid, I can remember a few scattered conversations about what kind of person Alicia would be today, what she would have looked like, what she would have grown up to become, etc. However, those conversations were always short, because they could not continue if there was a chance my mother would hear it.
But it was something I thought of fairly often. At one point, when my childhood was on very shaky ground, I imagined my sister as a guardian angel to keep me safe.
I am not saying that she is an angel, or ever has been. I am not even saying that Alicia was somehow present in that hole in the wall and heard me introduce my partner to her. I’m not even going to discuss her soul, her spirit, or any of the other things that anti-theists might take for evidence of my severe mental illness. No website in the world could completely contain that debate. I have no intention of engaging in that debate, either.
As it stands now, the only place where my sister’s existence is acknowledged is on a note card at the Chapel of the Chimes, a birth certificate and death certificate in the records of the Sonoma County Clerk’s computers, and me.
That’s why I have pledged to do the only thing I can do to make sure that Alicia’s one-time presence is not omitted from the human race’s history. I pledged to write this article (which was rejected by HuffPo, by the way) and I have pledged to include her in the dedications of any novels I am able to publish in the future. If nothing else, at least someone other than myself will remember that she existed.
Margaret Alicia Blethen
b. November 5, 1966 – d. November 5, 1966