When my great-grandmother Maria Julia da Costa Frias, my maternal grandmother’s mother, died in New Bedford in 1909, her family of new immigrants didn’t have enough money to erect a gravestone. Her grave had only a round stone marker with a number on it, small and sunk into the ground. There were many graves with markers instead of monuments; people were poor and struggling, with children to feed. My grandmother visited her mother’s grave often, and then less often as years went by. And the grass continued to grow. One day, years after Maria Julia’s death, my grandmother went to the cemetery accompanied by my mother, a young girl with no memory of the grandmother who had died while she was an infant. But during this particular spring season the cemetery grass had flourished; in fact, it covered all of the markers in that particular section of the cemetery, and it was impossible to read the numbers. My mother and grandmother were in basically the right place, but there were two unmarked graves side by side, and they weren’t sure which one was Maria Julia’s. My mother was wearing a necklace, a cross on a chain, and suddenly, maybe because of all the anxiety in the cemetery air, the chain broke and the cross fell to the ground. Was it a sign? My mother and grandmother decided it was, and for months afterward they planted flowers on the grave that the broken necklace had landed on.
Here’s the problem: They did try to find out for sure. They visited the cemetery office and inquired, and by that time they weren’t even sure what the number on marker should have said. But the office had absolutely no record of anyone named Maria Julia Frias buried there at all, in any grave, marked or unmarked. She didn’t exist.
On São Miguel, in the Azores, where Maria Julia was born, families had alcunhas, nicknames, to differentiate them from other families with the same surname. The alcunha could refer to a physical trait or to an activity or accomplishment. The Frias family’s nickname was Malassadas, referring to the delicious fried dough that Maria Julia might have been known for. As my family later learned, when Maria Julia died my grand-aunt Inez’s husband made all the arrangements with the cemetery, but he gave his mother-in-law’s name as “Maria Julia Malassada.” She was there in the records after all, but it took a while to find her. And the grave chosen by my mother’s broken necklace? It was the wrong one. All of that was straightened out, and the cemetery crew did a better job of trimming the grass and keeping the markers legible. All was well.
Fast forward many years to when my grandmother was an old woman in poor health. She was troubled by the fact that her mother’s grave didn’t have a monument, and she had been saving up the money to buy one. She finally had enough, and she asked my mother and my aunt Linda to go to the monument yard, choose a stone, and have it engraved. My aunt, who was superstitious, didn’t like the idea. “As soon as we buy the stone, she’ll die,” my aunt said. Her premonition turned out to be correct.
There’s one more twist: My grandmother’s brother spelled his name “Farias” instead of “Frias.” Nobody knows why he did that. “Frias” is the correct version; I know, because I’ve seen the church documents. But one day the brother’s daughter stopped by the monument yard to look at the stone, saw the instructions for the engraving, and said “You have the wrong spelling.” That’s why my great-grandmother’s gravestone has the wrong name on it.
Here’s yet another twist: My paternal grandmother’s mother, Maria de Jesus Pereira Ferreira, died in New Bedford in 1920. A few years ago I went to the cemetery to find out where she was buried. I knew the exact date of her death, and the cemetery pointed me to a grave for someone named “Maria J. Faria.” To my ear, “Ferreira” and “Faria” don’t sound anything alike, but nobody consulted my ear, and a lot of people couldn’t read, write, or spell in those days. I checked the death notice in the newspaper microfilms at the public library, and it checked out; Maria’s parents were listed, and they were definitely my great-great-grandparents.
Just because something is engraved in stone doesn’t mean it’s correct. Two great-grandmothers, no relation to each other, have gravestones with nearly identical names on them. And it is the name of neither of them.