One of the ways I drive to work in Albany, NY, takes me down Sand Creek Road to Everett Road, just past where Jacquelyn Porreca was fatally stabbed several months ago at the hair salon where she worked.
In front of the salon, a makeshift shrine sprang up, the kind of impromptu shrine you see at the edge of the road when there has been a fatal car crash. On the salon stoop there were flowers, balloons, candles. One day, driving home from work, I saw a couple standing there. I couldn’t hear them, but I could see that they were crying, holding each other the way we do when otherwise we would be holding on to emptiness, our hands more than usually useless.
Earlier this year I spent a little time in Nova Scotia, driving around the south shore, toward Halifax and then on to the Bay of Fundy. The first day I stopped mid-morning at the shipbuilding town of Shelburne with its wide, graceful harbor. I lunched in Lunenberg, with its steep streets and brightly painted buildings. Then it was on to the Aspotogan Peninsula and lovely Bayswater Beach at dusk, the fog rolling in like anxious parents, cautioning of bedtime.
The next day it was on to Grand Pre—French for “great meadow”--all low tide and red clay when I saw it, Fundy’s massive tides receding as if hastily packed up and threatening no return. I spent my last day on Digby Neck, a 75-kilometer strip of giant pinky finger floating in the Bay of Fundy. It was on Digby Neck that I heard about Jerome. “Jerome” was the only word he ever uttered, this young man found on the beach in 1863, both legs amputated below the knees and all the buttons of his coat cut off. No one knows any more than that about him, even now. For a while the Baptists in Digby tried to care for him. But his care was expensive and, since they thought he was of Mediterranean descent, Jerome was sent to a family on the French shore—the other side of Digby Neck--where he stayed until he died, something of a local phenomenon, for which his caretaking family charged admission. Of course, no one claimed Jerome any more in his death than they had in his life.
I have to say that I loved Nova Scotia, four days far too short a visit. And yet there was something raw and sad about my time there.
Graceful Shelburne’s sunny harbor features a memorial to those fisherman lost at sea. There are many of them and the names listed attest to the dangers of the sea well into the twentieth century. At colorful Lunenberg—just a short drive on—there is the same memorial. Different sculpture, of course, but equally somber, equally funereal. There are more names on this one: Lunenberg is larger. By the time I got to Bayswater Beach, I’d read in the guidebook that here I’d find a memorial to the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, of which there were no survivors. I made the short hike to the memorial and read the names. Some families perished together, perhaps the lucky ones. Mostly it was single names, leaving behind those who grieved them. At Grand Pre it was more of the same: a UNESCO World Heritage site commemorating the wholesale removal of the Acadians, the French inhabitants who had settled the land, forging bonds with the aboriginal people long before the British came colonizing.
Swissair 111 Memorial Site, Bayswater Beach, Nova Scotia
How could I have loved so much a place that made me this sad? Isn’t vacation supposed to be fun? It’s hard to say. But this much I know: even though not all losses are final--even when they feel that they are—life is marked by them. And in spending my days pausing before fallen fisherman and drowned passengers and displaced Acadians and poor Jerome-with-no-buttons, I come home to the knowledge that we must make what we can of what we have left. That, it seems to me, is sacred duty--sad, onerous, humbling and true.