by Lou Cespedes
For several weeks now, my family and I have been strolling through Holy Cross Cemetery. It is the only green space available to us nearby, and we enjoy the quiet. For a moment, the challenges we face in our community recede and I use this time to reflect and ponder. Rather than write about all that’s going on today in our city, I want to share some of the fleeting thoughts that come to me as I wander among the tombstones.
You see names you don’t associate today with E. Flatbush. Irish, Italian, German, and Polish names abound. Holy Cross is a Catholic cemetery, so that’s not so surprising. Nonetheless, you can’t help but wonder about the past, and about all those people, that looked so different from us, settling in this community over 100 years ago. What did they value? Why did they come here?
The truth is E. Flatbush has been here for quite a while. Holy Cross is a big cemetery. Some tombstones have birth dates from the 1700’s. I stop to think about what they would say about our community today. I wonder what houses they lived in. I see the names of some that lived long lives, and others, not so fortunate. Men, women, and children that once walked our streets, now long buried, must certainly have faced challenges like the ones we face today. I want to ask them how it was back then, how did they live? Where did they work? how did they die? Were they here when there was nothing but farmland and dirt roads? Did their families have opportunities? Did they die in the last pandemic? Would they have been happy to see me in their community then? If they could speak, would they approve that I am visiting them now?
This is Brooklyn. This is New York City. People live and people die here every day. For centuries people have toiled, won, failed, dealt with unspeakable tragedy, celebrated moments of great joy, and lived otherwise boring lives. As I walk through this cemetery you can see some grandiose plots, with tall obelisks that have family names, long abandoned. Other tombstones are brittle and humble, with short qualifying phrases like “a devoted mother”, “my loving husband”, “our beloved child”. Every now and then in the distance, you’ll see the silhouettes of other humans visiting the dead. Fresh flowers can be seen frequently, and I know I just missed someone mourning. What would I have said to console them?
As I hear my daughter call for me in the distance, I’m rapidly forced back into the present, I take a deep breath and I am grateful.
If it’s hard for you to imagine getting through this time in our community and our city, you have every right to feel despair. We are in the midst of paradigm shift we do not yet fully comprehend. Loved ones are dying, children cannot go to school and share time with friends, you can’t tell if someone is smiling beneath their mask, lovers are on guard, worshipers cannot gather, and we will be eating on the streets in the dead of winter. All the while, businesses will continue to close, people will lose their jobs, then their homes, their families, and their sanity. We are facing dire times, but we are not the first, and we will certainly not be the last, to prevail in this city, at least momentarily. Think about it. How many economic recessions have these dead lived through? How many died sick and broke? How many got evicted because they couldn’t pay rent? How many never had an opportunity to sit in a fancy restaurant, or stare for hours into their cell phones aimlessly watching TikTok videos. You must wonder; maybe we are the dead ones.
The important thing to note about ourselves in this community today is that we are here but for a moment, and the things we need to achieve today require a sober, steady, and clear focus on the here and now.
I have no illusions about the challenges of our present reality. New York City may not be “dead”, but we see our community dying slowly every day from police abuses, gang violence, economic disenfranchisement, infection, broken politics, and broken homes. If the dead could speak to us, what lessons would we learn from them? Would they laugh and tell us how easy we have it? Would they ask – How could you have failed? As I walk among the rustling trees, I hear their voices whispering, “we gave you everything – don’t blow it”.
Our community of East Flatbush is full of riches, both human and material. We should not squander either. The time will come when our children will walk among our tombs. What would you like them to say about us? What will be the qualifying phrase to describe how we lived this moment in our community and city? I am confident, yet grounded (no pun intended) that we have the capacity in our community to not only survive this moment, but also prosper. We have the resources to redeem our community during this time of fear, uncertainty, and violence, if we decide to collectively walk out of the graveyard. We are alive now. Let’s get on with it.
Jeremiah 29: v.11-12 Twitter: @loufor45 Instagram: loucespedes