My neighbors are quiet. I mean, really quiet.
Just outside my window, the numberless dead sleep peacefully (one hopes) in one of several cemeteries that are grouped near my home. My quiet neighbors include e. e. cummings (his name rendered in all caps on the simple marker), Eugene O’Neill (whose previous home, by morbid coincidence, was also my college dorm room), and Anne Sexton. With so many literary neighbors, is it any wonder I turned to writing?
I live in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, which was once the far frontier of the city, hence the collection of burial grounds. I often walk our dog in St. Michael’s, which was founded in 1905 for the Italian community of Boston. True to its first residents, many of whom came here as stone masons, the cemetery boasts ornately carved memorials, some with statues of the deceased, others with dramatic biblical scenes. Some have early photographs attached to them, while hand-tinted portraits collect dust inside family vaults. I like to practice reading the Italian inscriptions (thank goodness only Rosie ever gets to hear that!) and try to imagine who some of these people were. I’ve found war heroes, children, and even one woman who literally spanned centuries, born in 1900, and passing in 2000.
We started walking there because it was convenient and peaceful (and of course, dog-friendly!). Only later did my uncle Angelo, the family’s historian, tell me that I have a lot of relatives buried here. The possibility never occurred to me, since that side of my family was from East Boston, across the harbor and the rest of the city from here. It must have been an extraordinary trip back in the early twentieth century, to organize a funeral at such a distance. It turns out that, in addition to several aunts and cousins I had never heard of, my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents are here. Once, in another morbid accident, I literally stumbled on the marker of an uncle that Angelo hadn’t told me of, Rocco, who died of the flu in 1918.
Seven years after Rocco’s passing changed the family’s future, my grandfather watched on helplessly as his brother Angelo drowned in Boston Harbor. That would have been my uncle’s older brother—my great-grandmother was pregnant with him when this occurred, and the name got recycled (in fact, my uncle was the third to carry the name). Today, that uncle lies in an unmarked grave in a shady corner of St. Michael’s.
Cruelly, my grampa’s aunt accused him of murder. To his dying day, he carried that guilt and it’s a story that still hangs over my family. With his permission, I took the story and turned it into a fictional murder scene in my first novel, Night of the Furies. I like to believe, in some strange way, that “putting it in the book,” as he was always telling me to do with family stories, helped ease his mind.
It was on one of my dog walks that I noticed the name Florence Uglietta. At first, to our ears, that name might sound both old fashioned and, well, ugly. But as I tried to sound out her name, I imagined it would sound more like “yulietta,” perhaps even related to “Juliet.” I began to think it was beautiful. I imagined that it meant “Flower of July,” though none of my research supports that. Another stone nearby carries the name “Solari,” and that, along with the woman who spanned the centuries, became the seed for “Florence Uglietta Solari: A Full Life in 19 Fragments.”
Once I had my main character, I wondered what that “full life” would have been. What does a 100 year old woman know? How many secrets would she take to her grave? More immediately, what would she accumulate in all that time? If it was anything like the papers I’ve gathered in only half that time, it would be a lot. And despite her pretty name, Florence didn’t strike me as a particularly organized person, hence the jumbled documents some poor soul would find among her effects. Her story came to me as I sifted through those scattered pages as presented in the story.
Since then, my uncle himself has passed into part of the family’s history, though he his not here among our other relatives. As Rosie and I continue our exploration, we’ve found clues to many other tales hidden in the names and dates and hopeful prayers inscribed on the stones here and the other nearby burial grounds.
Who knows what I’ll dig up next?
J. M. Taylor has published more than two dozen short stories, appearing in such mags as Thuglit, Tough Crime, and Wildside Black Cat. “Florence Uglietta” is his first to appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first novel, Night of the Furies was published by New Pulp Press, and Genretarium has just released his second, Dark Heat, which PW calls an “impressive noirish tale.” Both of them are set in or near Boston, and are retellings of ancient Greek myths. He lives in JP with his wife and son, and when he’s not writing or reading, he teaches under an assumed name. You can read more at jmtaylorcrimewriter.com and follow him on Twitter at @taylorjm7.