Our mom died three years ago last week, and she’s buried (or interred or however you want to say it) at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on the far South Side, along with her parents and a couple of her brothers, one set of grandparents, assorted uncles and cousins, and our brother Mark. Not that everyone is buried in one neat group. Far from it. There are two graves here, three there, and then a big grouping of about a dozen O’Malleys and Morans.
The earliest grave in the O’Malley-Moran grouping is from 1928; the latest 1964. Five of the graves date from a single year, 1939, and four of those from a single date, August 22. That’s the date of what I remember my mom calling “the dunes,” when Mary Moran and Mary O’Malley — her first cousin and aunt, respectively — and John Moran and John Hogan — an uncle and her 11- or 12-year-old brother — drowned at Miller Beach in the Indiana Dunes.
We grew up hearing about the dunes: It was the day after a big storm on the lake, and a rip current swept our mom, three months shy of her tenth birthday, and the others into deep water. How my Uncle Bill, who was 13, was nearly dragged in, too, but escaped and ran up the beach for help. How Mom was rescued just at the point of drowning and was revived on shore (the identity of the rescuer was unclear until a few years ago; a few years ago, it emerged as another cousin, Joe O’Malley, who was only about 17 at the time). The terrible aftermath of funerals and guilt.
But until my mom died, I never visited the cemetery or really knew where the family was buried. It was only last year that my dad showed me the Moran and O’Malley graves, and that was the first time I saw where the people who had drowned were buried. There’s a small mystery about the burials, though: One person, my mom’s brother John, is unaccounted for among the markers on the family lot. The cemetery’s records show he’s there, somewhere. But either his grave was never marked or the stone has been buried or lost. My dad’s started trying to sort out where he is.
In the meantime: Of course, the drowning always seemed real to me. My mom’s account was detailed and haunting. When I was 17 or so, we drove out to Miller Beach, and she showed me the big house the family had rented for a couple of weeks that August. Even so, coming upon the graves — This is the Aunt Mary that Mom talked about, the one who washed her hair that day and insisted she wear a bathing cap — gives the story another dimension, an objective dimension, it really hadn’t had for me before.
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