The Cemetery and Going to Sea

I will be publishing a few pages here at this long holiday weekend but right now I wanted to take a stroll down memory and maybe bring a few of you with me.  Delving deep into my memories of the past, here is a nostalgic look at bygone days.  Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving.

The Cemetery and Going to Sea

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white
sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.

She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until
at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and
sky comes down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says,
‘There! She’s gone.’

Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. She is just as great in
mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as
able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her; and just at that moment when
someone at my side says, ‘There! She’s gone,’ there are other eyes
watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout,
‘There she comes!’ And that is dying.

Death stands above, whispering low, I know not what into my ear.
Of this strange language all I know is, there’s not a word of fear.


My family has been a part of Cape Cod for over 350 years. It was in 1644 that Giles Hopkins (#49) moved his family from Plymouth and became one of the founders of Eastham. His homestead occupied a major portion of land on the shore, opposite Eastham, on the Town Cove. This area is now part of Orleans and lies along both sides of Tonset Road. A ways down the road, you come to Hopkins Lane, probably named for Giles who settled there, but appropriate because the area has been full of Hopkins ever since. My grandmother’s maiden name was Hopkins and the driveway to her house on Tonset Road was only fifty yards from Hopkins Lane. As a young child, I figured that Hopkins Lane must have been named after her, since it was by her house. In reality, the old woman was living on a piece of land that had been originally settled by her great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.

As a young child, I got to spend plenty of time at the Cape. I loved the Cape and I felt a certain magic there and this magic seemed to get stronger as we came down Tonset Road. On the right we would pass the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. About a hundred yards further was a little dirt driveway on the left side of the road. An old metal sign hung next to it that said, “John W. Downs.” As you came down the driveway, the first things to appear were two garages straight ahead. The first one had an old fashioned, accordion type door. The other one had the more modern overhead door. At the garages, the driveway would turn right and the house would come into sight. The first thing that you would notice would be the water. The house was built on the shore of the Town Cove, a navigable tidal inlet from the ocean.

I think the water and the ocean is what made this house, and the Cape, magic for me as a child. There was always that salt smell in the air. From the back porch, one could watch an endless display of boats on parade. A sunfish would glide gently over the water and then the silence would be broken by a power boat towing a water skier. Down by the water there were two boat houses and a workshop. One boat house was used to store the floating dock, the other contained the Helen. The Helen was my late grandfather’s boat. He named it after his wife, which seemed to be the custom of Cape men. Harry Hunt, who owned the next piece of property down along the shore, named his the Gertrude after his wife.

In one of the bedrooms downstairs, in my grandmother’s house, was a little statue of an old seaman. He stood upon a white dresser as if on watch. Another relic that fascinated me in that house was an old sea chest. I remember asking my grandmother about it. She told me it belonged to her uncle, Stillman Higgins(#500), who was lost at sea. In my young mind, I assumed that the ship had sunk. I asked her, “If the ship sunk Grandma, how come his chest is here?” She explained that he was washed out of the rigging during a storm and the ship returned to port with his belongings. He was just 16 years old.

Upstairs there was a single large bedroom and one bath. There were three beds up there and this is where my family stayed while visiting. One day while I was exploring the crawl space behind this room, I came across two quarterboards. A quaterboard is the plank on the side of a ship that has the name painted on it. They are usually black with white or gold lettering, and are affixed to the side of the ship near the prow. These were from the Marcellus and the Mary E. O’Hara. Tucked between the two boards someone, probably Uncle Giles(#102), had typed the story of the O’Hara on a couple of sheets of paper, to be saved for posterity. The pages were old, worm holed and hard to read. Apparently though, the O’Hara was a schooner that sank in Boston Harbor after a collision with another vessel. All but five members of her crew perished. The quarterboards, according to my mother, were given to my grandfather because he had something to do with the insurance settlement on the disaster. He was a Boston lawyer whose practice was mostly limited to insurance matters. These quarterboards, I was told by my father, used to be nailed to the side of the workshop by the dock.

This workshop was something straight out of bygone days. It had a pot bellied stove and a trap door in the roof to let the sunlight in. Many of the tools in there were probably over a hundred years old, as were the oil burning hurricane lamps, which at one time burned whale oil. The tools definitely were of boat building and repair nature. There were many planes of various sizes from eight inches to two feet in length. These appeared to be from the late 1700’s or early 1800’s to me, but I’m not an expert. They are carved from plain blocks of wood, with a metal blade inserted into them. This blade is held in place by a wooden wedge. In the corner stood two tools that were used to sand the decks of large ships. These were used in the days of the clippers, the tall ships. My grandfather served in the merchant marine back in the days when these square riggers were not only common, but still being built.

We used to go visit my grandfather’s grave in the cemetery along Tonset Road. The cemetery is adjacent to the Meeting House, which was built for the congregation to hold services in. Even though this isn’t the original, they have all occupied the same location. The cemetery has the oldest graves, dating to the early 1700’s, by the Meeting house. The Meeting House is at the bottom of a hill and the cemetery extends up the hillside. My grandfather is buried at the top of this hill. Working your way down this hill you can trace major portions of my family tree for generations and centuries. The magic of the Cape was very strong in the cemetery. Before I fully understood my ancestry, and the extent that it covered the landscape, I felt that it was a special place.

One day in this cemetery, I remember my father showing me the graves of his grandparents. I wish I had paid more attention to those stories then. We came upon a stone for Stillman Higgins. Dad confirmed that this was the same Stillman whose sea chest was back at Grandma’s house. The stone said, ‘Stillman Higgins, son of Thomas and Susan Higgins Lost at sea Sept. 9, 1854 ae. 16 yrs. 5 mos.’ I asked my father how could there be a body buried here, if he was lost at sea? He told me the stone was just a memorial to him, and explained what that meant.

When I was older, I read Uncle Giles’ manuscripts and the cemetery became even more special. I could actually recognize names that I now knew about. These were no longer just names and dates, they were people with stories. These were my ancestors, their brothers and sisters. Many of the names here in the cemetery, appear on my family tree. There are Higgins, Hopkins, Freeman, Snow, Bassett, Mayo, Knowles, Rogers and Linnell, to name just a few. All of them are either ancestors or cousins of mine to some degree. My genes and the blood in my veins come from many of them. A few of them I have had the privilege of knowing in life. Uncle Giles, for one, is buried a few feet away from Stillman’s stone.

In 1988, my grandmother died at almost 101 years of age. At the graveside service, the minister said a few words about our family. He mentioned that we have gone to sea for many generations and mentioned the special bond we had with the sea. He read the poem that I opened this chapter with and I believe it was also read at my grandfather’s graveside service. In fact, it has been implied to me that the reading of this poem at burials, may be something of a family tradition. It seems very fitting for a family that has known the sea so intimately in both life and death. As the minister read those words, I glanced down the hill about fifteen yards to Stillman’s memorial stone. Then I turned my attention to the blue casket that contained the remains of my grandmother. We were laying her to rest, next to her husband, on the top of the hill.

When my father died in 1995, I thought of how appropriate it would be to read this poem at his graveside. I had no idea where to find a copy of these words. I had only heard them once before at my grandmother’s burial and had no hope of calling them to memory. At the funeral home, an aunt tucked a piece of paper into my hand. It contained the poem and, later that day, I read it at my father’s grave. If it wasn’t tradition before, it is now. My father has now been laid to rest, next to his parents, on top of the hill.

Another place I went often as a child, was my Aunt Barbara’s house. She is my father’s sister and she lived in Chatham. Chatham was just a short ride from my grandmother’s house in Orleans. The house on Tonset Road was only built in the late 1930’s. Before this, my grandparents’ Cape residence was this house in Chatham. The house was situated on a bluff overlooking the ocean. A long stairway wound its way down to the beach. This was another magic Cape Cod place, and again it was the sea that made it so. I have many fond memories from this house too. We had a big family reunion there in 1969. My grandmother had eight of her nine grandchildren in attendance that day. My older brother Jack, living in California at the time, was the only one unable to attend.

When I heard the news of my cousin Doug’s passing, I was sadly reminded of how this link with my family and the sea remains strong both in life and death. He drowned in Mexico in 1997. I expect that the poem was read at his funeral, but I wasn’t there, so I don’t know for certain. It was, after all, his mother who slipped me the paper before my father’s funeral.

Even though our links to the ocean remain strong, a lot has changed since I was a kid. The property my grandmother’s house was on was quite large. She gave a piece to each of her three children and still held on to many acres herself. Both of my aunts long ago sold their pieces. My grandmother’s house was also sold. A new road, Driftwood Lane, now goes in to this land a little ways further down from where the old dirt driveway used to be. Her old house is still back there, on the water, with a big addition on it. A small neighborhood full of homes now occupies her old property. Farther down Tonset Road on the left is Sea Crest. This development occupies Harry and Gertrude Hunt’s old land. Sandwiched between these two housing developments is a parcel of undeveloped wooded property. This piece, which now belongs to my mother, is the last piece of my grandmother’s property. The property, as far as I can tell, has been in the possession of the decedents of Giles Hopkins (#49) since 1644.

My Aunt Barbara passed the Chatham house on to her kids. The old quarterboards from the Marcellus and the Mary E. O’Hara are hanging in my mother’s family room. The old “John W. Downs” sign by the dirt driveway on Tonset Road is hanging now by the pool gate at my mother’s house in New Jersey. The old tools from the workshop are in my fathers old workshop in my mother’s basement. In fact, my mother’s house is filled with artifacts from the Cape house. Stillman’s sea chest is in her finished basement and she has told me that someday it will be mine, because I would appreciate it as family historian. The white dresser, upon which the statue of the seamen kept his ever vigilant watch, is in my house, filled with my clothes. Even though I can never go back, my life is filled with reminders of those days.

Happy Thanksgiving from

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