A couple weekends ago I visited the graves
of relatives and ancestors on my father’s side at Woodlawn Cemetery
in The Bronx. All of them died before I was born, but my Grandma Searls
and her sisters often visited there, and I thought, Hey, now that I’m in New York a lot, and live nearby, I should visit all these dead folks. And Grandma would like that.
Grandma was born Ethel Frances Englert, on November 14, 1882, the third of four sisters. Here she is at at age three, in early 1886:
And here is her gravestone, in Brookside Cemetery, over in New Jersey, nor far from Fort Lee, where she lived for most of her married life. That life commenced when she was 20, in 1902:
The absence of a death date is no exaggeration. Grandma died in 1990, at nearly 108 years old. Her youngest daughter, Grace Apgar,
lived to 101. Grace’s 100th birthday party
was a gas. (My father was her big brother, Allen H. Searls
are the four Englert sisters with their dad, Henry Roman Englert
, in 1894:
Grandma is the foxy one on the lower right.
They lived here
, at 742 E. 142nd Street in the South Bronx:
That row house was razed, along with the rest of the block, to make room for what is now called “Old” Lincoln Hospital
. Today an impoundment lot for towed cars reposes atop a hill formed by the imploded remains of the hospital.
Henry was a son of Christian and Jacobina Englert
, immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine, and head of the Steel & Copperplate Engraver’s Union
in New York. His first wife, the four girls’ mom, was Catherine “Katie” Trainor,
the daughter of Thomas Trainor, a carriage maker who emigrated from Letterkenny, Ireland at age 15 in 1825.
Catherine’s brother Charles was killed in the Civil War. Family legend says he ran away as a teenager to fight, and was shot carrying the Union flag. But he didn’t die then. The old man visited the kid in an army hospital in Washington, barely recognizing his son through a thick red beard. On Christmas 1865 the son arrived home in a box. Father and son are among the early plantings in the vast Calvary Cemetery
in Queens. At three million corpses strong, it is New York’s largest. I’ve never been there, and I’ll bet almost nobody else has in over a century. (Other than Aunt Catherine Burns about which I say more below.)
Katie’s sister Margaret, better known as “Aunt Mag,” or “Maggie,” was a favorite of the Englert girls and a source of family wisdom. A sample: “You’ve got it in your hand. Put it away.” Here she is:
Katie died at 38, and Henry married Tess Atonelle
, a family friend, not long after that. Here is Tess with Andrew Englert, brother of Henry:
Tess and Henry produced a number of additional offspring, of which only one was remembered often by Grandma and her sisters: Harry
, who died at age 4 in 1901:
That was about when Grandma married George W. Searls
, my grandfather, who was 19 years older. George was, among other things, the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith, when Hollywood was still in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where the family lived. Here he is…
…with his crew
Grandma met Grandpa when she was working as cleaning help in a boarding house or something, where Grandpa was asleep. She was so attracted to the sleeping carpenter that she bent over and kissed him. He woke up instantly, and hugged and kissed her back. Natural selection, I guess.
Grandpa died in 1934 at age 70 after catching erysipelas
from a nail that scratched his face. If they had penicillin back then he might have lasted a lot longer. I remember his older sister, Eva Quackenbush
, well. She was born in 1953, lived almost to 100, and told stories about what it was like when Lincoln got shot. She was 12 at the time.
I was lucky to know so many interesting characters born two centuries back, or close: stories of New York when the streets were all dirt and cobble, of the arrival of gas light, electricity, subways and trolleys, cars and phones.
These people were living history books. Grandpa walked with a limp from a wound he got fighting in the Spanish-American War
. He ran the crew that built the Cyclone
at Palisades Park: the scariest roller coaster
in world history. Pop was the first to ride it. He was a fearless dude.
Through the Depression Pop worked as a longshoreman in New York, helped build
the George Washington Bridge, served in the Coastal Artillery and went to Alaska to build railroads. That’s where he met Mom. Then he re-enlisted to fight in World War II, where his last job was as General Eisenhower’s phone operator in Paris.
All four Englert girls were still going strong the whole time I enjoyed perfect childhood summers
at the beaches and in the backwoods of South Jersey. Here they are on the Jersey shore in 1953:
They all spoke Bronx English, so the place where they stood was called ‘Da shaw.” It was also Mantoloking, not Point Pleasant. Just being historically accurate here.
What matters are the memories, which fade in life and disappear in death. I had hoped to bring some up, or to organize them in some way, when I visited Woodlawn.
It was less eerie there than simply blank: dead in several meanings of the word. Graves not “endowed” were marked by stones sinking
into soft and hummocky glacial moraine. Who still remembers or cares about Henry Kremer (1853-1905) and his infant son
, whose headstone is a few years away from burying itself? Those who cared enough to buy the stone are surely gone. How about the very late Joseph Harper,
who departed in 1897?
I took those photos while following a map
made for me by my cousin, Martin Burns, who shares the same ancestors and relatives, and who had been there before with his mother, Catherine (named after her mom, Katie), who did much of the genealogical and photo-gathering work from which my research here benefits. She died not long ago in her late ’90s. (If accident or disease doesn’t get us, we’ve got a nice portfolio of genes to work with here.)
I walked around for about half an hour. During that whole time, and while driving in and out of the cemetery, I saw nobody else, other than my wife, sleeping in the car. (Later she said this wasn’t her idea of a fun date.) Verdant and peaceful as it is, Woodlawn is a well maintained place abandoned by nearly all but the dead who reside there.
The Englert inhabitants are spread across three grave sites. A fourth is the Knoebels
— the family into which Aunt Gene, Grandma’s oldest sister, married. She’s the second one from the left in the beach shot, above. There are six graves in the Knoebel plot, which is the only one of the four that I found. Thirteen people were buried there
. One, Aunt Gene, went in when she died in 1960, and came out a decade later, when she was moved to Fairview Cemetery in New Jersey.
Christian and Jacobina are in an endowed plot, so their headstone stands upright. Here are
aunt Catherine and cousin Kevin Burns (brother of Martin), standing behind it a few years back. There are three graves here, containing the bodies of seven people. I’ve listed them in this photo
, by Martin. Four died young, and three lived full lives.
The single grave of Andrew and Annie Englert is unmarked, far as I know. (That’s Andrew next to Tess, above.) I didn’t find it. Nor did I find the grave of Henry Roman Englert, the root stock of most of the descendants I knew and heard about growing up. (I hadn’t yet posted the photos I got from Martin, so all I had to go by was a print-out of his map.) I remember standing still at one point and sending a mental message to any ghosts who might be around, asking for a clue. I felt and heard nothing: clear evidence that the departed are truly gone.
Later, when I looked at these two
photos, I saw that I was standing exactly on top of the graves of Henry, Katie, Harry, and several others. Here they are, in a photo Martin shot:
Several things about this weirded me out, once I looked at the affidavit Catherine got from Woodlawn (or somewhere), listing the deceased under the grass here.
First was that there was a fifth Englert sister, Grace, who died at age 2, and was buried here in 1889. Obviously my aunt Grace Apgar was named after this kid. But I either never heard about the late baby Grace or forgot about it. Still, it was a surprise.
Second was that little Harry lay beneath both his older sister, who died at 28, and his mom, Tess, who died at 63. All that seemed even more tragic to me. (I’m five years older than Tess was when she went.)
Third was that Henry got the only headstone, and it was probably not one he bought for himself. I’m sure it was put up after he died, I suppose by his surviving daughters.
Yet the site was visited often, way back when, I was told. Why did nobody ever mark them all? Or those in the other plots?
I think it’s because, after awhile, nobody needs it. If the dead remember the dead, they don’t do it here on (or in the) Earth. At any given moment there are better things to do than dwell on the dead that nobody here remembers or cares about. I’m probably wasting my time and yours by visiting the subject right now.
But yet I do feel a need to memorialize these people in pixels on the Web, rather than just on cemetery stones. I am sure, for example, that some Englert descendants — cousins I don’t know — will some day find this post and appreciate the efforts put in, mostly by Catherine and Martin.
Harvard, founded in 1636, is likely (I hope) to keep this blog up long after I’m gone; but even Harvard won’t be around forever. Everything dies. Rock under uptown Manhattan dates from about a half billion years from now. Another half billion years in the future, life will have been burned off the Earth by a growing Sun.
once told me over dinner that in a thousand years evidence of nearly everybody alive today will likely have disappeared. It’s a good bet.
Life is for the living. So is knowledge. All I’m doing here is contributing a little bit of it to the few people who might care — And acknowledging the love that flows between loved ones of all generations, nearly all of which are gone or not yet here.