"To clean up the old man's bed,
good to first get your name in the paper"
By Bryce Petersen Jr.
Newgarden Cemetery, Carlow, Ireland, a Quaker
cemetery where the author's great-great-great-great-grandfather was
years later, the old man's daughter left for Utah, and that's how people
end up being born where they're born. / Photo by Kenna Dyches
My money was disappearing fast. I stopped
staying in hostels. I started sleeping on beaches. in fields. in old
buildings. A little lonely, perhaps, but the ocean was peaceful. and the
drivers each day were friendly.
I stopped at a music festival and listened as
raucous fiddle bands and laughter-filled pubs fell immediately and
deadly silent for the piercing voice of a lone woman. The rowdy crowd
did not even shuffle from her first chime to her last breath. A moment's
gap left room for an inhale, an exhale, an inhale . . . before the next
foot-stomping, hoarse-yelling chantey boiled forth out of the stillness.
But now I was hungry, my money was gone
was back in Carlow with my grandfather. Actually, my
great-great-great-great-grandfather. He died in 1849. I wanted to clean
up his bed. The old graveyard was neglected, overgrown with stinging
nettles and briars, drenched with dew. When I walked through, I came out
scratched, wet and red. I didn't think my grandfather wanted to sleep in
a place like that.
I wanted to clean up his bed. But first I
wanted to eat. I wanted to get rid of this cold I had contracted from
too much booze, too little sleep and too much rain. The one I'd gotten
from too little rest and too little food. Too much travel.
My sister and I had stayed at a bed and
breakfast on Dublin Street in Carlow, the street where Elizabeth
Anderson, my great-great-great-grandmother had lived the first years of
her life before leaving for Utah in 1853, four years after her father
had died and been buried in Newgarden Cemetery, I'd heard. No one knew
anything about Newgarden Cemetery. Hmmm, was all anyone said. The man at
the corner market had never heard of it. The host at the B&B had never
heard of it. But he said Mr. Purcell, the town historian, would know. He
was very hard to reach.
Or very easy, as it turned out.
The next morning, breakfast was over. I yawned
and went for my shower.---
"Mr. Petersen, Mr. Petersen, Michael Purcell is
here!" shouted the host.
So he made time for us that day. He dropped us
off at Newgarden. Said he wasn't allowed on the farmer's land. We walked
in. It was dark, and wet, and thick. The rusty gate creaked. The nettles
were armpit-high. Kenna didn't go in very far.
Two months later, I wanted to clean up my
grandfather's bed. But first I wanted to eat.
I asked Mick. First: Can I clean up that
graveyard? No. The plants are too wet. The farmer is protective. The
caretaker is old. The situation requires delicacy. He would handle it. I
should just help him with a few other projects while we wait.
Second: Can I have some food and a place to
rest? He would give me bread and find someone to put me up. I should
show up the next morning. Early. To help him mow a church's lawn.
I worked all day the next day. I wanted to call
the caretaker. Mick relented. He gave me a list of things I should not
say. I called the caretaker, asked if I could help.
"No, no," he said, "the farmer who owns the
land won't let anyone on," he said, "I'd like to have it cleaned up but
he doesn't want anyone on his land."
"Can I talk to him?" I asked. "My grandfather
is buried there."
"No, no," he said, "I need to talk to him
myself, besides, he's in the hospital, and besides, your grandfather is
not buried there."
"That's what the record said," I said. "I admit
it wasn't very authoritative, just a pedigree chart, I don't know where
they got the information, but that's what it said. Are you sure there
are no Andersons there?"
"No, no," he said, "only Quakers are buried
there. Besides, I don't remember the name Anderson, and besides, you've
never had your picture in the paper."
Mick found me a place to stay. A friend of his,
Nicky, was tending his mother's house while she was in America. He
wouldn't mind letting someone tend his house while he was tending her
house. I could mow his lawn occasionally. Maybe help out at his
restaurant or his pub occasionally.
I still had a cold, but I had a bed. And Mick
was giving me bread to eat. I couldn't help my grandfather, so I looked
for him. I went to the library in my spare time. The librarian gave
short, sharp answers to my questions. She answered because it was her
job. She hated her job. She would disappear for hours after each
question. She'd never seen my picture in the paper.
But I managed to find his obituary. It didn't
name a burial place. I also found his address on the tax rolls. It was
now a shop on Dublin Street. His brother lived where a mall of sorts
with three or four stores was now.
I walked around town, asked if anyone needed
"I'd like to stay here for a while, but I have
no money." I felt very small when they said no, no, no, over and over.
If they didn't say no, I would return day after day, until finally, they
said, "No, we're full, and besides, you've never had your picture in the
If I mowed his lawn or hauled kegs into his
pub, Nicky would pay me more than it was worth and I would buy spaghetti
and vegetables. Many nights he gave me money so I could take a French
visitor, friend of the family, out on the town. Nicky didn't like to
drink. He'd been in a pub too much in his life.
Living on charity, drinking Nicky's money away,
eating someone else's bread, getting nowhere in the job market or even
the volunteer market, I gave up. I called my poor mother and asked her
to send me my last $100. I had hoped I could use it to change my plane
ticket. But I couldn't find any work. And I hated charity.
Each morning, I would wake up feeling worse
than ever, lungs full of smoke, head full of beer, cough and headache
worse than ever. But I had no money. No sense. And nothing better to do.
The graveyard was still too wet, the farmer still didn't want me on his
land, the caretaker didn't believe my grandfather was there. So I drank
again. I woke up groggy, lungs full of mucus and smoke, head full of
beer. Feeling worse than ever.
Nicky gave me 10 pounds for mowing his lawn. It
wasn't worth that, but he felt sorry for me. With that I bought a return
ticket to Dublin to go to the Quaker library. There were five cute old
women working at the library and two researchers. The old women carried
big books up and down the stairs all day when we'd ask. The big books
had births, deaths and marriages dating to 1605.
And there he was. Robert Anderson, buried May
1, 1849, in Newgarden Cemetery. His mother was a Quaker. His sister
married a Quaker. And he found himself a plot in the Quaker cemetery. I
couldn't wait to get back.
Peter Thomas, the last remaining Quaker in
Carlow, the caretaker of Newgarden and probably its last addition
someday, softened a little when I told him about my find. But he'd still
have to get permission from the farmer. I was closer, but it wasn't like
I had my picture in the newspaper.
The money hadn't come. It
had been two weeks. It should have arrived by now. I wondered if it
would ever come. I still had nothing but charity and Nicky was getting
sick of me. I didn't blame him. I was a wino, with the sniffles.
Until Mick Purcell talked
to his newspaper friend
into writing about me. Weeks before he'd had me write a statement. I
thanked the pastor of the Carlow Presbyterian Church, otherwise known as
Scot's Church. I told them where I was staying and why I was there. The
newspaperman liked the story about the American boy who came all this
way just to clean up his grandfather's bed. He added and subtracted,
adjusted the story to fit his needs. And I became a big story two days
before I had to leave.
I was no longer a small, inoffensive creature
to be brushed aside. I had my picture in the paper. The librarian
greeted me warmly the next day. She gave me suggestions, showed me
books. She helped a lot. She must have mistaken me for the big story.
The caretaker invited the big story over for
tea. I went in his home, The Hermitage, and saw maps, pictures, records,
just what I had been looking for, for the last three weeks. The
caretaker must not have recognized me as the boy who had phoned. He
encouraged me to clean up the graveyard, make it nice.
"I'll be buried there someday, you know, I may
be the last one," he said.
Another friend, leaving for a trip to Germany
offered to let me stay in his little flat while he was away. The
caretaker loved me. The librarian loved me. Surely an employer would
recognize me if I'd go and ask now. Everything was finally going my way.
And the next day, I left. After three and a
half weeks in the town, I did the one thing I regret from my trip. I
quit. I hopped on a bus to Dublin. From there I caught a bus to London.
From there I caught my plane. The graveyard looked the same. It was
overgrown with stinging nettles and briars; drenched with dew.
And all I have to show for it is an old, yellow
picture in the newspaper.
Mick Purcell c2006 & Utah State University