I walked into the University chapel with a group of white-haired men in blue suits. I paused in front of an usher who wore a nametag with an orange and black ribbon pinned to it: Somers K. Steelman ’54. I extended my hand for a program. He looked at my unbrushed hair, sweatshirt, jeans, and flip flops.
“Can I help you,” he asked, holding fast to his stack of programs.
“I’m here for the Service of Remembrance,” I answered.
He raised his eyebrows. “Are you a relative of one of the deceased?”
The expression on his face softened. “Well, then come with me,” he said, motioning toward the front of the chapel.
“Actually, I’d rather just sit in the back.”
He raised his eyebrows again, nodded, and said, “Whatever makes you comfortable.”
He handed me a program, and I shuffled to a seat in the third to last pew of the chapel.
I hadn’t exactly lied to Somers K. Steelman. My grandfather (Henry C. Barkhorn Jr. ’36) died in the summer of 2000. I was on a bicycle trip in Europe when I found out. My group had just arrived in Barcelona, the trip’s final destination, and I had called home to tell my parents. Our housekeeper Zeny picked up the phone. I asked to speak to my father (HCB III ’71). Zeny paused.
“He’s not here,” she said, finally.
“Where is he?”
“Ummm, he go to see his brother Bill in New Jersey.”
My Uncle Billy received too much oxygen in his incubator after he was born prematurely. He is blind and mentally retarded. He does not sit still; he rocks back and forth, shaking his hands, and muttering to himself. He eats out of a bowl with a large spoon. When he comes to visit, the person who sits next to him at dinner cuts his food into tiny bits and, at the end of the meal, helps him find the pieces he has missed.
Still, he remembers the birthdays of everyone in our extended family, even those long dead. If my mother is bored in the car when Billy is with us, she asks him to tell her the birthday of a distant cousin.
“Hey, Bill, when is Adelaide’s birthday?” she asks from the passenger seat, making her voice slightly louder than when she addresses anyone else.
“Adelaide…Adelaide…March 26! March 26! That’s right. And her sister Margaret was born on April 9. And her daughter Meredith was born on August 4,” Uncle Billy pauses and shakes his head furiously. “But Adelaide died. That’s too bad. Adelaide died. She died.”
My mother turns around and pats Uncle Billy on the knee. “Very good, Bill.” When he continues murmuring, “That’s too bad. Adelaide died,” my mother adds, “That’s enough, Bill.”
Uncle Billy lives in Jersey City in a group home, where he puts forks, knives, napkins, and packets of salt and pepper into the plastic baggies that come with take-out food. He visits my family for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and once during the summer. I had never known my father to visit him on a whim.
“Why?” I asked.
“I…I…I cannot not tell you,” Zeny stammered.
“Why?” I insisted.
“I sorry, Eleanor. Your grandfather died.”
I started to cry. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s. My father would say in his eulogy that when I was five, I asked my parents why granddaddy never addressed me by name. Despite this anecdote, for as long as I can remember, I understood that my grandfather did not remember things. Once, when we went to dinner at my grandparents’ apartment, he stood up in the middle of the main course and wandered into the living room. My grandmother told us not to worry, that he did this all the time. After we finished dessert, we went into the living room and discovered that he had disappeared. The front door to the apartment was wide open. We called the police, who found him twenty minutes later, staring at the history titles in an independent bookstore two blocks away. I never talked to him, never touched him, except once, on Christmas Eve, when my father made me kiss him on the cheek.
My father drove down to Princeton for the Service of Remembrance the year my grandfather died, but he did not ask my mother, brother, or me to come with him. “His name will be one of hundreds,” my father explained.
Two years after my grandfather died, I became Eleanor J. Barkhorn ‘06. In the fall of my freshman year, the following entry appeared in my grandfather’s class notes in the Princeton Alumni Weekly: “Nice note from our old friend Jean C. Barkhorn, widow of our past class treasurer (1976-88) HENRY C. BARKHORN JR., who died back in July 2000. Henry’s youngest granddaughter, Eleanor, is a freshman at Princeton this year, so she will be graduating some 70 years after we of ’36 did and 35 years after her father Henry III ‘71.”
I sat down in the pew and looked at the program. It was printed on several sheets of cream-colored paper. The front page bore the Princeton seal and the date: February the Twenty First, Two Thousand Four, 3:00 pm. I opened the program and read the name of the opening hymn: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” It was one of the hymns we sang in the weekly chapel service at my high school. As I continued surveying the program, I recognized the elements of a traditional church service: opening sentences, prayer, choral anthem, Bible reading, another hymn, sermon, doxology, litany, another prayer, closing hymn.
On the final pages of the program were the names of Princeton graduates who had died in 2003. The names from the earlier classes were predictably aristocratic: Ivy Ledbetter Lee ’31, Robert Augustus Moosmann ’32, Malcolm Guerin Van Arsdeale ’36, Dixon Watson Driggs ‘43. Laird Cornish Simons ’28 had died on Christmas. By the late 1950’s, the names became: Robert Rock ’59, Paul David Gottlieb ’65, James J. Brown ‘73. Not until the Class of 1996 did a name like Temai Tongai Myambo appear. Edward Said’s name was listed as one of the members of the Class of 1957 who had died. When my mother was at Barnard, she took a class from Edward Said while he was still just an assistant professor. Whenever I take a class from an assistant professor, I wonder if someday he will be as famous as Edward Said, if one day I will tell my children that I studied with Eric Gregory (or Eddie Glaude, or Tim Watson) before he published his seminal work.
As I stood in the chapel, I told myself I was there to pay my belated respects to the grandfather I never knew. But as I watched the procession pass, it occurred to me that someday, I would be standing here again, in the very same chapel, at the Service of Remembrance after my own father had died. Again, I started to cry. I hoped that no one else would come up to me after the service and ask if a member of my family had died. What could I say in response: “Yes—four years ago” or “Yes—but he hasn’t actually died yet”?
As we were walking to dinner that evening, I told my friend Ellinor (daughter of Richard D. Quay ’71—though they were classmates, our fathers never knew each other at Princeton) how I had spent my afternoon.
“I went to the Service of Remembrance. Is that morbid?” I asked her.
When Ellinor did not respond, I added, “And I started to cry in the middle.”
Ellinor nodded as her eyes widened in understanding. “Oh…because someday they’re going to be remembering you?”
I stopped walking for a moment. I looked at Ellinor.
“That’s really funny. I didn’t even think of that.”