by Florence Caplow
We exist because of those who have come before us; their strength and love can strengthen and encourage us in our living, in a great circle of interconnection. There is a deep humility in understanding that we are just one note in the symphony that began long before our birth and will continue long after we’re gone. And the sound of our note is shaped by all who have shaped us, as we shape the notes to come.
This is, of course, literally true. Our bodies are shaped by the DNA of our direct ancestors, and we also carry the culture and stories and songs that have been passed down to us by people far beyond our immediate family.
Recently I returned from New England, where I was on a UU history pilgrimage with my 88-year-old mother, Harriet McNeal. We spent several days in Concord, the home of many people I consider spiritual ancestors, the brilliant circle of Transcendentalist men and women of the mid-19th century whose writings, speaking, poetry, activism and tremendous insight shaped America in so many ways.
It was moving to stand in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study, surrounded by his library that had so enthralled young Louisa Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, or to see the house where the Alcott sisters created their private world that became Little Women. We went to Walden Pond and I picked up an acorn there, thinking in gratitude of Thoreau and how his book Walden changed my life as a teenager.
But the most moving part of being in Concord was going to Sleepy Hollow cemetery, on a hill at the edge of town. They are all there, just a few hundred feet from one another, Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne and Elizabeth Peabody and the Alcotts and Thoreau, on a high rocky ridge. I could just imagine them walking there together one afternoon and laughingly arguing about who would get the best spot.
It was not hard to find their gravestones, because people had left offerings at each one. Emerson’s marker was a massive uncut chunk of native stone. At Louisa Alcott’s little stone there were hundreds of pens and pencils. At Hawthorne’s someone had left a folded up piece of paper with a poem. The most moving of all was Thoreau’s.
I’m sure you’ve seen, in old cemeteries, the very small headstones for children who have died, just a few inches tall. Well, that was how it was there. All it said was “Henry.” His humility and simplicity in life, his early death, were all there. I sat down on a root, grown from his bones, and thanked him in my heart for what he brought to the world 120 years before my time, teachings that we are still taking in and learning from, about how to live on this earth with grace.
My father was a powerful, brilliant, complicated man, who married four times and had many children. When he died at age 95 I flew to Virginia for his funeral, held in a 200-year-old Episcopal church in the Virginia hills. Five of my siblings were there, and many of his grandchildren. After the service, we walked in the rain to the cemetery beside the church, under huge old oaks.
They had a canopy up, and folding chairs, and as mourners we sat in the front row. His coffin was lowered, the tarp that covered the piled up earth was removed, the priest began the Lord’s Prayer, and then suddenly there was a ripple through the crowd.
I looked up and saw a little brown mouse who must have been under the tarp. The mouse was right on the edge of the very deep grave, darting back and forth and looking in. It was as if the entire Caplow clan had only one thought at that moment, Don’t go in the grave! What would we do if the mouse went in? How would we get it out? Would one of us have to go in after the mouse? We certainly wouldn’t bury it. Needless to say, there was not much attention being given to the Lord’s Prayer!
Then one of the men from the funeral home gently shooed the mouse away. Later we admitted to one another that we couldn’t shake the sense that the mouse had been some part of our father’s spirit, peeking over from the other side.
After the service I noticed three of my nieces, beautiful young women, at the foot of the now mouse-free grave. No one was paying any attention. Alice began to sing “Dona Nobis Pacem” and Jane and Susan joined in, and then my sister Deborah walked over and began singing. I joined them, as the rain came down. We sang our peace and goodbye to this man who had shaped us, been father and grandfather, writer, teacher, trial, gift, curse, blessing.
Afterward I looked at them, into their clear eyes shining with tears, and I said, “He lives on through you, you know. He lives on in all of us.”