As is my tradition, I begin every New Year by breaking in the new journal that Santa has left for me under the Christmas tree and listing the highlights and low points of the previous year. Usually, the ups outweigh the downs, and 2019 was no exception. Today’s entry, January 7th, 2020, recalls celebrating a milestone birthday with friends and family who flew in from overseas, bathing in the Jordan River at Eastertime, and returning to Budapest to sing Mozart’s Requiem. While these experiences top the list, there’s one that stands out as the high point of the year: my return to Maple Grove Cemetery last June.
It might seem odd that a visit to family burial plot would even deserve mention, but this visit—or pilgrimage—was an opportunity to heal a distressing memory that had haunted me for 15 years (see Cemetery Tales, Part I) and replace it with a heartfelt one.
In November, 2004, I’d visited Maple Grove for the first time with my husband, Otto, and my mother, who wanted to show us the resting place of her beloved German grandparents, known as “Oma” and “Opa.” Since then, it had been hard to shake the image of Mom crawling on her hands and knees as she peeled away damp autumn leaves from the tombstones in a futile search for the “Huttner” gravesite. When she was diagnosed with dementia soon after and no longer able to drive to the cemetery on her own, I decided to return there on her behalf and look for the “sacred spot” that had eluded her. Little did I know it would take 11 years to go back.
On a bright April morning in 2015, Otto and I took the train to Kew Gardens, Queens from Manhattan and went at once to the Visitor’s Center, which had been closed on our initial visit. We learned that Oma and Opa were indeed buried in the Linden section of the cemetery, as Mom had surmised. As we walked through the small dell between two rolling hills, the area seemed familiar, and soon we were standing under the “towering oak tree” that Mom had mentioned. Moments later, when we found the Huttner tombstone, I was overcome with emotion—Mom had been so, so close.
The plot looked a little forlorn with one lone shrub and a headstone darkened by years of inclement weather, but the glorious oak stood firm. I was surprised that a third Huttner, William, was also buried there. Known as “Bill,” he had been Oma and Opa’s first child to survive into adulthood, only to die of a sudden heart attack at age 35.
I closed my eyes and imagined the tragic scene that had unfolded at that same spot in 1942, as the Huttner clan gathered to mourn Bill—son, father, brother, uncle. My grandmother Marion would have been 27; my mother Gloria, eight. The latter would return for Oma’s funeral in 1961, eight months pregnant with my sister. Thinking of Mom as the young and healthy mother-to-be she once was, tears streamed down my cheeks. When Otto and I visited her one week later at the dementia ward where she now resided, I told her I’d “found” Oma and Opa’s resting place. She smiled, caressed my cheek, and let out an “Ahh.” I’d like to think that in that precious moment, she understood me and was pleased.
One year later, Mom moved to a nursing home and passed away there almost three years later at age 83. She had long ago told me her wish to be cremated, and I’d hoped her ashes could be interred at the Huttner plot, but it wasn’t possible. Instead, we held a memorial service in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she had worshipped, with several Huttner family members in attendance. Afterward, my cousins and I discussed the idea of a family reunion in New York City the following year. I perked up at the thought of seeing these and other close relatives again so soon. We are all spread out—Utah, Oregon, Florida, Hawaii, Australia, Boston, Finland—and opportunities to get together are few and far between.
After months of planning, the Huttner reunion kicked off last June with a barbecue at Uncle John’s house on Long Island. Ten Huttner descendants and their families sat on the patio on a gorgeous afternoon and shared life updates, some meeting one another for the first time. Frank, Jr. shared genealogical information from Ancestry.com, and I handed out copies of stories Mom had written about her early life with Oma and Opa, which we read aloud. (I’d found these in her notebooks in her storage locker.)
The next three days of the reunion were packed with visits to the Tenement Museum and the Met, shopping at Macy’s, Broadway shows, and Circle Line Boat cruises. However, for me the highlight was the day we met in Kew Gardens and enjoyed a German-style luncheon at the Homestead Gourmet Shop, followed by a pilgrimage to nearby Maple Grove. In reverent silence, we gathered around the family plot and took turns telling stories about our ancestors that had been handed down by our parents and grandparents. I told of Oma’s handing out sandwiches to hungry strangers who knocked on her and Opa’s door during the Depression. When my six-year-old mother asked Oma why she was feeding them, Oma had simply replied, “Das Herz blutet.” (The heart bleeds.)
On a lighter note, I shared Mom’s story of how Oma would make liverwurst sandwiches during their weekly outings to the movie theater. While other Laurel and Hardy fans munched on buttered popcorn, Oma pulled slices of meat from her magtashe and placed them on a piece of butterbrot. Mom’s face would turn beet red as she slid down her leather seat.
As I listened to my cousins add their bit of family lore, I marveled at how the struggles and sacrifices of two poor German immigrants—Oma and Opa—had paid off for us. Had our ancestors dared to dream that future generations of Huttners would be able to afford a college education, travel for pleasure, and spend the night (or even reside) in an upscale Manhattan accommodation? I think they would have been tickled to meet us—musicians, writers, engineers, interior designers, investment bankers—and taken pride in our accomplishments, which we owe in part to them.
Before leaving Maple Grove, we all shared a moment of silence and placed yellow roses around the gravesite. I could almost feel Mom’s joy that we were all together, paying tribute to the grandparents she’d loved so dearly.
Today, as I recall these events, I envision a small, sacred piece of land far away. The autumnal leaves have long ago been raked up and carted away; a shimmery blanket of snow will soon cover the earth. If you look closely, small bursts of yellow appear around the bush branches, like tiny lights on a Christmas tree. And high above the towering oak tree, Mom and her loved ones keep watch and celebrate new beginnings.