Mrs. Gambles Grave

By Martin Henley

I am seventy years old. The preceding sentence is simple and declarative, yet for me it is as unfathomable as time itself. How did I get to seventy years, and why am I still here while some of my closest childhood friends have died? These were my thoughts as I stood over Mrs. Gamble’s grave. Her tombstone is a simple gray granite marker. Wreathed with grass and leaves, it lies flush with the ground. The inscription is brief. In letters worn smooth from 145 years of weather, it reads: “Mrs. Gamble, Died Dec 17th, 1798.” Her simple stone is the only visible marker in a neglected colonial cemetery in Syracuse, New York.

In 1955, when I was twelve, stately elms and shady chestnut trees dotted the open green fields of the cemetery. Kids from the neighborhood made it their playground and called it “the Park.” In the fall we played football, and during the winter the diminutive cemetery hills bristled with sleds. Summer was the best. Baseball games followed the sun. We started early, suspended play for lunch, and resumed until supper. We chose sides by picking the two best players as captains. Chosen last was a temporary humiliation quickly dissipated as we embraced the flow of the game. The batting order was determined by the quickest to speak up. “I got first ups,” “I got second ups,” the chorus continued until the sequence of “ups” concluded with the last batter. For the rest of the day the cemetery resonated with the crack of wooden bats on rawhide baseballs and the shouts of hooting kids.

We devised several ball fields, each with its own set of ground rules and golf-course contours. On one field a ball hit over a path was a home run. On another fly balls bounced through tree branches. An improbable catch earned a week of bragging rights. Trees, rocks, and stumps served as bases. In my favorite field a chestnut tree was first base, a forlorn baseball mitt served as second, and Mrs. Gamble was third base. My friends and I sailed together through the boundless summer joking, teasing, swearing, and playing. They were precious times, and we knew it.

These days I travel to Syracuse infrequently, but when I do I visit the cemetery. It is quiet and empty. Kids don’t play there anymore. I clear off Mrs. Gamble’s tombstone, and I look around recalling the bittersweet days of my youth. The neighborhood has changed. The big red house I lived in on the corner is divided into apartments. Surrounding houses look worn and weary. The Irish and Italian families who were the backbone of the neighborhood moved to the suburbs years ago. The park seems smaller, shrunken. Blight destroyed the elm trees. A few stunted chestnut trees still stand. Only Mrs. Gamble is unchanged. Her solitary tombstone remains, an obscure memorial to the joy of childhood and the melancholy of old age.

"flashmemoirmartinhenley"Martin Henley, a Vietnam veteran, retired as Professor Emeritus from Westfield State University in 2009. His retirement presented him with the opportunity to pursue his passion for history. He has authored several books on educating at-risk youth and, at every opportunity, pursues his lifelong challenge of hitting three good golf shots in a row.


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