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The Two Sides Of Grove Street

Autumn wanes in New Haven. The “WALK NOW” sign at the intersection of Grove and Elm streets comes on, reflected suddenly in the black glimmer of the water-glossed asphalt. The wind sweeps through the empty intersection, abandoned in the early hours of the morning, and eddies up past Commons, a handsome, circular building, built around an elegant war memorial to scholars who died for, “for God, for Country and for Yale.” Racing up Grove Street, the chilled zephyr swirls through the Gothic arches of the law school, to the college named for Jedidiah Morse and around the gymnasium named after Ely Whitney, both Yale graduates, both interred at the Grove Street Cemetery. Skittling through the branches of the high elms poised above the graveyard’s stone entrance, the air hurls itself, whistling and wheezing through the ornate metal gate, past the enscription - "The Dead Shall Rise.”

Through the cemetery gates, down Pine lane, and the wind blows a hard left onto Maple ave. The gravel spread across Myrtle path crunches eerily beneath the solitary tire of Bill’s wheelbarrow. In the cold gloom of the grey New Haven morning, the lean 53 year old sets the cart down by its handles and reaches into his jean pockets for his “ironclad” work gloves. Drawing them out by the fingers, he whips them against his thigh a few times to shake the stiffness and dust from their worn, leathery fabric before pulling them on. After a few seconds of jogging in place and rubbing his warm breath between his gloved palms, Bill takes up the handles of the rusty old cart, puts his weight behind it and heads down the narrow lane towards the Trowbridge family plot.

He tries not to whistle in the mornings, just out of respect. But the silence in the cemetery can become nerve racking when all that can be heard is the sound of his boot-clad feet stalking the uni-barrow … greaanch, step, step, greeaaanch, step, step, - step greeeeaaaaaannnnch step. There’s very little in a graveyard that can scare a man whose family has been working at one for three generations, but when the path slants downwards Billy begins to whistle an old country tune. Just a little background music, so he won’t hear Mary Louise Tarantino reading out the inscription on her gravestone, “In reincarnation I did appear. How lovely is the Birch.”

Three-fourths of the way down Myrtle path, in the center of a large square of property, surrounded by a low metal fence, the large statue of an angel is standing with one hand pressed against a giant slab of marble. Inscribed on the marble, the name Trowbridge is set in proud, imposing letters, giving the monument an air of arrogance that seems inappropriate for a graveyard plot. Blue eyes grow squint as a wide yawn sweeps across Billy’s thin, square face, causing his Hulk Hogan mustache, dangling on either side of his mouth, to twitch. He turns off the path and guides the wheelbarrow across the grass, and between gravestones, until he reaches a freshly dug, rectangular hole.
Billy’s knowledge of the instruments used to transport and position gravestones before the advent of cement foundations is quite impressive.

Without taking his eyes off the progress of the gritty mixture, dribbling from the lip of his cart into the dug-out trough below, he continues speaking in the mildest of Southern dialects. “I don’t think a cemetery is haunted,” says Billy matter-of-factly, “but I’ll definitely say it’s occupied.” He smirks boyishly, almost shy to admit that he might entertain the possibility of ghosts. Much younger looking than a man with two boys over twenty-three years old, he tells me he was his sons’ age when he packed up his janitorial service and joined his parents at the Grove Street Cemetery. Bill’s father, old man Munson is only the third superintendent the New Haven burial ground has known, in two hundred years.

To both father and son, the graveyard is a place for quiet repose, not for sadness. And in speaking of it, they demonstrate a most profound admiration for human life and the phenomenon called Death. “There’s a ton of famous people in here,” Bill says with a shrug, sticking his shovel into what could potentially be a grave, and crossing his arms over the metal handle. “That’s all most of the touristy visitors care about. But I think that’s wrong. To me they’re all famous.” And, though Mr. Munson will take people by the graves of the famous Yalies on guided tours of the cemetery, he agrees with his son.

When his cemetery was declared a historical landmark, he came to see his work as a mission. “There’s a lot of people that need our help and support,” he told me, when I went to interview him in his office, a Victorian style two-room building, originally intended to be a Chapel. Sitting hunched in his chair, his thinning auburn hair offset by wildly bushy, graying eyebrows, he explained, “That’s what I like this job. Always wanted to be in a line of work where I could be of use to somebody.”

Mr. Munson talks about his hobbies; whittling the hundreds of vacant-eyed wooden animals covering virtually every desk surface in his crowded office, and taking in the abandoned animals that stray into the cemetery. His passion for writing is something he mentions modestly. But because he writes like he lives, he told me, he framed the check he received for the only short story he ever published. It seems as though in tending to the grave stones of men and women, who have left behind nothing by which to be remembered in the world, the Munsons have lost the appreciation of permanent things.

What they do not talk about, however, is the history of their personal association with the grounds they supervise. They answer questions about one-of-a-kind experiences with accounts of recurring events—the annual Fourth of July celebrations, daily chores, regular routines—they guard possessively their personal stories.

Memories from Bill’s schoolboy years—working, along with his four siblings, at the graveyard over breaks from school—are not open for discussion. The story of the first time he buried a baby, or of the time his sister was bitten in the shoulder by a young girl who became hysterical at her father’s funeral cannot be told in any detail. He talks about grave stones from the 1600s, which were stolen from the cemetery and uncovered in police raids years later. “They’d come back with, you know, wax and stuff on them, and people had been using them as coffee tables and what not.” But, he will not talk about the new graves by the North wall, where the burials of friends and relatives have been overseen by himself.

He points out the figure of a little lamb on the grave of a small child who died of Yellow fever in the late 1700’s. “I repaired it on the request of some school children. The statue was broken and weathered, expensive repair you know, but I was just so impressed that all these third graders cared so much for a little kid that died so long ago that I did it for free. They made it worthwhile,” he says, signaling to strings of colored plastic beads and other festive decorations draped around the lamb’s head.

Life continues within the walls of the Grove Street Cemetery as an affirmation of the finality of death. Seasonal plants bloom in the little flower beds laid out by Joan, and Billy continues to plant fresh grass where it’s dwindling, treating the trees and shrubs, laying the foundation for new tombstones. Beyond the gates of Grove Street Cemetery life continues at Yale University in pursuit of immortality. When darkness settles over the college-town, street lamps everywhere twinkle to life. The ancient stone buildings glisten like amber jewels, each window bathed in warm, honey-colored light. Soon, students who, only a few hours ago were returning from class, will emerge again; walking to dinner, or to a talk on eating disorders hosted by the Women’s Center, or to the final show of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” MUN members walking to “sexy” (SCSY –Security Council Simulation at Yale), sky-high heels and mini skirts walking to a kegger before heading over to check out the Hellenic society’s “Pirates of the Mediterranean” party.
azmaray azmaray 18-21, F Dec 14, 2012

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