Karen Nunley

Cemetery People


Family Plots

We are cemetery people.  “It’s the Irish in us.” Mom said, but I always thought it was from reading Dickens and the lonely grave that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had shown Mr. Scrooge.

Without a second thought, we went every Sunday right after church.  Riverview Cemetery overlooked the Delaware River in a majestic way.  It was right at the end of Centre Street, just a couple of blocks past the house where Grandmom and her seven siblings had grown up.  

I loved the cemetery.  I knew right where our people were -- to the left at the entrance, around the corner from Grandmom’s cousins’ plot, behind my great-grandmother Metzger’s grave, and across from the rows and rows of veterans’ stones, all alike and rigid, at attention.   I loved pumping the handle up and down, up and down, to fill the watering can we kept in the trunk.   First thing, we would wash off the stone, because birds usually had left deposits.  For Memorial Day, we planted red geraniums, white alyssum, and blue ageratum in the granite box planters on both sides of the stone.  In the fall, we brought mums and always blankets of greens for Christmas.  In my first memories, Grandad was on one side and little May on the other, but, as the years passed, Grandmom joined Grandad and Aunt Gloria was laid next to little May.  New names and dates carved on both sides of the stone.  

I knew all the most interesting stones.  There was an angel, taller than I was, writing in a stone book, her wings drooped in sorrow.  General McClellan’s grave had a tall obelisk; you couldn’t miss it.  There was a black iron (I think) raven on another stone.  My mother had pointed out where John Roebling who had designed the Brooklyn Bridge was buried.

I knew where the wild violets grew when the weather was warm and always picked a bouquet for my mom.  Violets were her favorite flower.  


Little May

Grandmom passed the tiny portrait in the oval frame many times a day.  But in winter her eyes would fill.  “It’s snowing on little May’s grave.”

I knew the story –

blonde, two years old, the flu pandemic of 1918, before mom was born.

Years later and far away, I look out.  “It’s snowing on little May’s grave.”



She went out in the yard and came back with a four-leaf clover.  Every time.

You ran along beside me holding the seat of my bike while I pedaled like crazy.  “Training wheels are for sissies.”

She could stand on one stair and bend so far that her fingers could touch the step below.

You always brought us something green to wear on St. Paddy’s Day.

She had thick wavy dark hair, like her father, and hazel eyes, more green than brown, like her mother.  She wore very red lipstick.

On the first day of school, you would call and say “Get to school, Get to school, Tell your teacher she’s a fool!”

She graduated from Hamilton High at 17 and started work as an “executive secretary.”

After Dr. Gold tightened my braces, I would go down to the fourth floor, where you cleared a spot for me to draw quietly while you typed.  My mouth was sore, but I loved those times.

Her bedroom was in the front at 1457 Hamilton Avenue, facing the street.  She had a bed with a cherry headboard that looked like three ladders.

You took me on adventures.  An overnight in a hotel in New York.  We took the Circle Line around the Statue of Liberty and were in the audience of live TV shows, like Beat the Clock and Jerry Mahoney.  A week in the Poconos where we swam in the pool every day.

On Saturdays, she would set up the altar at Grace-St. Paul’s for the next day’s service, bowing her head each time she passed in front of the huge crucifix surrounded by the twelve apostles.

You wrote to me every day when I was away at college, so I would “never have to look in an empty mailbox.”

For the days she worked, she found a companion to stay with her mother whose mind had become cloudy.

We all clung to each other on the ladder bed when Grandmom closed her hazel eyes for the last time.

She lived alone at 1457.  Carl Swinger with the lazy eye from church had always seemed interested, but she never gave him the time of day.

I graduated, moved away, got a job, fell in love, got married.  I learned of the cancer when I got back from my honeymoon.

Her sister was there when she had one mastectomy, then the second.  

Far away from Trenton, I was busy with my career, with only two weeks of vacation.

Chemotherapy was a new idea in 1973, but there was nothing to lose.  She couldn’t eat.  Dark hairs remained on her pillow.  There was a time when she felt better.  She could drive.  She went back to work.

I made the trek to New Jersey a few times over those two years.  I had just gotten home from work when I got the call from my mother that you were gone.

She was buried next to little May in Riverview Cemetery.   On the other side of the stone lay Walter and May.

I never told you that you are the person I aspire to be.


Walt and Masie

They made a striking couple.  

His thick hair was dark and wavy.  He dressed with a flair – a colored handkerchief in his vest pocket, a straw hat, the fashion of the day, perched at an angle.  He had dark eyes that flashed.  He could tell a good joke.  He knew all the popular songs of the day, played piano without music, had a hearty singing voice.  

She was tall and willowy, with hazel eyes, more green than brown.  She wore her hair, so blond it was almost white, in long braids that wrapped around her head.  It was hair that might have inspired The Gift of the Magi.  She lowered her eyes and blushed when he teased her.  

          Let me call you "Sweetheart," I'm in love with you.

          Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.

          Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.

          Let me call you "Sweetheart," I'm in love with you.*

Walter William Metzger and Salina May Diamond were married in 1912 in St. Paul’s Church in Trenton.  

* Lyrics by Beth Slater Whitson, published 1910



It was just after my fifth birthday when he died on my front porch, still in uniform.  The swing set, his birthday gift to me, still new in the backyard.  The metal bars were painted red, my favorite color.

He would tie the laces on my red sneakers.  Actually, red, white, and blue if you counted the KEDS label on the back.  “You have a fifty-fifty chance.  How come you always put the left shoe on the right foot?”

He fed me egg, soft boiled, I think, covered with flecks of black pepper.  I sat on his lap and looked out the back door at my grandmother’s red roses on the arbor.

I often rode in the front seat of the police car, my feet dangling, before Ralph Nader and seatbelts.

His holster, its gun peeking out at me, hung on the dining room chair at lunch time.  “Don’t touch.”  As with the hot stove and the prickly cactus, touching had never seemed an option.

The ambulance came quickly.  For one of their own, my mother told me later.  Police sirens in my driveway.

I sat on the swing and pumped my legs hard.  At the top of every arc, I watched my red sneakers point to the sky.


Lost Children

I never lost a child.  I might have misplaced a few, but never lost one.  I am, however, the sandwich generation in my family between women who did lose a child.  Maybe lose is not the right verb.  We know exactly where they are – in the cemetery.

I was born on April 9, 1919 into a very sad family.  Just six months before, my parents had watched little May’s tiny coffin lowered into the ground.  A black ribbon still hung on the front door.  Although it was April in Trenton, the gardens hadn’t been cleared.  The peas hadn’t been planted.  The street sweepers hadn’t run and there was trash in the streets.

Some people called it the Spanish flu, but we just called it influenza.  The newspapers printed page after page of obituaries.  My mother’s brother John’s name had appeared on one of those pages.  Uncle John had been training to fight in the Great War, but he never even left Fort Dix.

Across the Delaware River, anger was aimed at the mayor of Philadelphia.  Against the orders of the governor of Pennsylvania, he had allowed a planned parade to support the war effort.  Marching bands, boy scouts in uniform, war widows, schoolgirls in white dresses flooded the streets.  Within days of the September 28th parade, the hospitals were overflowing.


Although I never met her, little May’s presence was with us.  My first memories include a drive every Sunday after church to Riverview Cemetery to tend little May’s grave.  The oval portrait of the light-haired toddler in tones of sepia hung beside the front door.  There would not be another little girl with blonde ringlets.  My hair hung dark and straight, as did that of my sister yet to come.

“The pain softens with time,” my mother once told me.  “She is gone, but we are here for a reason.  We have to figure out that reason.”

Busy with teaching, marriage, and my own three children, I rarely had time to ponder my reason for being.  My parents passed.  My children grew in different ways and directions.


When my oldest daughter gave birth, joy abounded – a beautiful little boy with blond curls, smart as a whip, tall and strong.  He talked in sentences at one, read “James and the Giant Peach” at five, had perfect SAT scores on the first try.  The apple of my eye related more to books and music and rocketry than to people.   On the school bus, his thick glasses were smashed.  A hurtful name was scrawled on his hall locker.  He wasn’t included in games.  “Some people just take longer to find where they fit in,” I told myself and my daughter.

I was unprepared for her phone call.  Still, when I heard her voice, I knew he was gone.  The details swirled and made me light-headed.  None of us had realized the depth of his sadness.  A disease as real as the virus that took my sister almost a century before had taken my grandson.

If only my mother could hold my daughter, to share the ache of losing a child, to assure her that the pain would soften. “He is gone.  You are here. You need to find the reason why you are here.”  The words came from my mouth but were second hand.  I had never lost a child.  



When my father died, there was no space left in Riverview.  Our plot was full.  Mom and I chose a place in Greenwood Cemetery, out of the city in the township, in an area of the cemetery called the eagle garden.  In the center, a very large bronze eagle statue perches on a piece of granite, with walkways radiating out from it.  There are no stones, only flat markers, which make it easier for mowing.  We are not permitted to plant in the ground, but can leave plants in pots.  Many people leave plastic flowers, but we aren’t that kind of people.

Mom was comfortable with the eagle garden and that is where she rests for always.  Along with the prerequisite cross, we chose a book to be included on her bronze marker.  She loved to read.   I remember her telling me how, as a child, she would get so nervous that someone would take the book she had her heart set on when the bookmobile came to school.

I have a cemetery plot of my own now.  In Westborough.  John and I chose it on a bitter February day, numb from the cold and numb from knowing our family had been shattered.  We buried our first son’s ashes and chose a stone, a wonderfully rough chunk of granite, the only smooth part carved with our last name.  Three years later, my husband’s ashes were buried next to Jake’s.  There is a spot there for me someday.  

I don’t get back to Trenton much these days.  It has been several years since I visited Riverview, but I could still find my grandparents and aunts’ stone.  When I stop by at the eagle garden, I like to leave a pot of violets for my mom.

Most weeks I spend a little time in Pine Grove Cemetery in Westborough.  The top of our rough monument is covered with little stones and carvings and odds and ends.  Some say “Love” or “Forever” or “Always”.  There are several heart-shaped pebbles, a metal peace sign, a whale with googly eyes that someone put together from stones and left for us.  A row of five small mums, bright yellow, planted in the ground and a nicely shaped pumpkin are there now.

I guess I will always be a cemetery person.