October 21, 2014

Finite Creatures We Are




Cemetery in East Lamoine, Maine

I’m eyeing the stone of Louis and Mary Googins des Isles, circa 1794-1825

Interesting this WordPress prompt, finite creatures, appeared the day I after I did research on deaths and funerals in Downeast Maine in the 1790s-1800s. Lest you think I’m strange for picking this topic I’d better inform you that I was researching it for my novel, in which one character, Mary, must deal with having her husband Louis sail for France in 1812 and never being heard from again (oops—there is a surprise in this true life story that mimics the later well-known epoch written by Tennyson, Enoch Ardon).

Thus, mortality has been on my mind these days.

The prompt asks At what age did you realize you were a finite creature, that you not immortal? How did you react to that discovery?

Two of my earliest memories are of death.

Our family dog, a cocker spaniel named Buffy, died after being hit by a car.


The man whose car hit him made a pine box for his burial. Buffy was buried under what is now an addition to 29 Spring Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I don’t recall my age but I might have been 5 or 6 years old. During a burial “service” I ran about the yard laughing. Was this an apartness from death or a childhood connection to the living dog?

When I was seven I had a brush with death. Following a particularly severe flu episode my appendix ruptured. The flu complicated things so the fact that my appendix ruptured three days before I was admitted to the hospital for emergency surgery was not surprising. The doctor wouldn’t give a nickel for my life, but here I am more than 60 years later. I’m unaware of my immediate response, but my lifelong response has been to appreciate life in all its finiteness and glory.

I don’t recall that, back in those early years, I gave much thought to what happens after death. I simply lived a happy and carefree life.

My great grandmother Elizabeth Smart Walker (Kittery, Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire) died on June 5, 1953. I don’t recall that death. She spent the last few years of her life in a hospital, and I don’t remember her.


My older sister Nancy and I lived with our maternal grandparents, Albert and Mae Isabelle Walker Briskay, until I was about 9 years old.


Our grandmother, who filled the mothering role for us,  died August 11, 1955. During her funeral I recall running around on the grassy front slopes of the Buckminister Chapel Funeral Home in Portsmouth.


I was 11 years old. However, her death had a profound effect on me. For some unfathomable reason I believed I would live no more than the 6 decades she lived. Thus, I expected my time on earth to end at age 60.

As an adult I attempted to live as much as I could my years that would be three-score years. For the most part, I concentrated on the living, not the death or the afterlife.

The question of immortality is not new. What were the thoughts of Eve, the first human widow, when she woke up to a “dead lump of a fellow next to her, stone still under the hides that covered and warmed them against the elements…This first human widow wakes up to find the man she’s been sleeping with and cooking for and breeding with gone cold and quiet in a way she had not formerly considered…”?* Did she consider that one day she too might not wake up, that she too might go cold and quiet in a way unknown to her, that…of all things…her days might also end, that she was a finite creature? Did she then wonder what came after that moment?*

But I digress. I have nothing further to add to my childhood discovery of immortality, to my learning I was a finite creature. I might add that Louis and Mary Googins des Isles immortality, at least for the present time, 200 years after their lifetime, are experiencing a kind of immortality, being brought back to life in my novel.  I’m certain they would, if they were alive today, find this surprising.Louis des Isles edE

I end this soliloquy with the following quote:

If something comes to life in others because of you, then you have made an approach to immortality.  —Norman Cousins

and photographs of my ancestors tombstones (The Walker stone is in Proprietary Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Briskay stone is in a cemetery in Stratham, New Hampshire.)

3831-H E


NOTE: If any of my readers are familiar with the des Isles, Walker, and/or the Briskay families I would be interested in hearing from you.



Adapted from The Good Funeral and the Empty Tomb, Thomas Lynch,

1 Comment »

  1. Carolyn…good morning. Interesting look into your childhood. 🙂 I first became aware of death when I was about seven. A younger brother died when he was only 18 months. (in 1948)
    When my mother died in 2004…I found his birth certificate in her purse.

    Comment by merry101 — October 22, 2014 @ 6:54 am | Reply

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