Remember when you were young and your teacher would ask you to write two pages on a particular topic?
“Two pages,” you’d whine. You’d set the margins as wide as you could and the font as big as you thought you could get away with. The between line spacing could be bumped up a bit. Finally, two pages doesn’t need to mean two completely full pages. It could mean one page plus most of a second page.
And so you’d write less than a page worth and turn it in as your two page essay.
As an adult writer I’ve had the opposite problem. I never seem to be able to write in the constrained amount of space I’m given. This isn’t such an issue when writing for the web. My two thousand word articles tended to come in at around three thousand words. During the two years I wrote it, my daily blog for java.net waxed and waned but never seemed to be as short as we originally envisioned.
Working in print is different. There space is money. There when an editor says 1000 words, they mean 1000 words. Last fall I wrote two pieces for MAKE magazine that had to be 300 words. It was some of the toughest writing I’ve ever done. Taking a two day conference and trying to capture it in a few paragraphs is very challenging.
Not as challenging as capturing a life on a grave stone.
I worked for a bit as morning man on an urban contemporary radio station. The out of town consultant said that the audience wouldn’t accept a white morning man and so they brought in a new guy from Pittsburgh and moved me to morning news guy. I was young and felt demoted and angry, and Carol Ford took me aside and told me why I would want to stay as news person. She was right about everything. I learned to write fast, clean, and tight. I learned to work off of another person.
What she couldn’t know is that I also made a friend for life in this new guy that they brought in to replace me. Matt called when he heard about Elena. He said, “remember when I told you, you can’t make friends in radio?” I did remember. “Well,” he said,” I was wrong.”
Each morning Matt and I would get to the station at an indecently early hour. I would read two newspapers and the newswire and start constructing the morning news. Less than two minutes per cast with six to ten stories in each cast and a couple of sports scores. I’d write the top stories three different ways so that people listening for a while wouldn’t hear the exact same newscast and there would be a couple of different stories included each time we broke for news.
As Carol had promised, this type of writing prepared me for so much of what I would later have to do. It hasn’t helped much with our current task of deciding what goes on Elena’s head stone.
There are so many different things that can go on a stone. There’s a classic one in Pelham, Massachusetts on which the family of Warren Gibbs accuses his wife of killing him with arsenic. The inscription reads “Warren Gibbs died by arsenic poison”. That didn’t make it clear enough so his brother William Gibbs also had the following poem carved on the tombstone:
Think my friend when this you see
How my wife hath dealt by me
She in some oysters did prepare
Some poison for my lot and share
Then of the same I did partake
And nature yielded to its fate
Before she my wife became
Mary Felton was her name.
I remember my aunt taking me to see that stone years ago, but this text from the Poison Oyster Stone was copied from the account on the Text-Heavy Ego Pit.
There is a modern style of stone that includes a picture of the deceased etched in. Kim and I don’t really see that as an option but I’ve suggested another use of this for my mother-in-law. Kim’s parents have bought plots next to ours at Lake View. They also own plots at All Souls and aren’t sure what to do with them. I’ve suggested they place a stone with a map to Lake View etched in so that people who come to visit them at one cemetery will know how to find their actual resting place. Kind of a permanent cross index.
The idea of pictures on a grave site is not new. The british have had brass images of the dead for years. People use paper and wax to do rubbings of the brass. You walk away with a copy of the brass image. We used to do the same with graves and inscriptions and use crayons and big pieces of paper.
My favorite epitaph belongs to Mary Kellogg who is buried in Oberlin’s Westwood cemetery. It reads simply “born slave, died free”. Of course there is so much more to her life than this. But how do you capture a life on a gravestone.
Kim and I have decided that you can’t. Perhaps it is more accurate to say, we’ve decided that we can’t. We are currently planning to just include her name and her birth and death dates.
Elena Maxine ChunXue Steinberg March 3, 1999 – February 22, 2006.