e-mail us

Starting Point

Carving signs for the future to say we, too, were here


Somewhere -- I won’t say exactly where -- there is a tree with the family name carved into it. A boy did the carving, but the man who took his place approves, returning yearly to set the name even deeper into the living tissue of an oak.

His annual journey is a sort of pilgrimage to memory. Most of those who bore the name are gone now, including the boy who made the first carving. But somehow, young as he was, he must have sensed a need for his reminder to futurity -- that we, too, had been here.

The boy did not carve his own initials; he carved the family name, an act that transcended the self. And he did not chisel the name in rock or scratch it in wet cement. He seemed to sense that his artwork, like life itself, was of the fugitive kind, fleeting and impermanent. Yet he tried with a boy’s jackknife and a summoned loyalty to help those he loved live a little longer. And that is still his mission.

During history’s greatest war, many years after the boy’s inspired carving, the man came across a sign in a remote corner of a desert, a sign that said “Kilroy was here!” And from that day on, Kilroy, the G.I. Odysseus, became someone in whom he could believe -- a carver of signs, a stalker of continents, a writer of words.

We all want to mark our passing through this, our world, our home. We want to leave our name or our footprints, our fame or our saintliness -- anything to show that we, too, have been here. The note in the bottle; the signals sent out into space; the neon bleeding of our name and the courting of history itself ... What are they all but extensions of a boy’s name-carving in a tree? We have been here. And we want you to know and remember.

The cemetery marker is rust-colored marble and it, too, bears the family name. Beneath it are the individual names of those who have gone on ahead. Yet the impulse that caused the stone to be erected is but an echo of a boy’s tree-carving.

The young name-carver obeyed a human urge -- to preserve, not to have it all lost in the swirling mass of time and the bitter brevity of our days. The identifying scratching of symbols that he cut in a tree stood for the measure of his days, the stuff of his dreams and memories and the object of his loves. No matter that his engraving would survive him by perhaps a century or two, if he was lucky. It was still a beau geste, grand gesture. It was his protest as well as a celebration of his being, his belonging and yearning to be remembered.

The places of primitive man are full of such drawings and carvings: His magic and religion appear on the walls of caves and in the graves of his ancestors. His record of blood truths and his struggle for survival are there to see when the rest is written on the wind.

The boy, too, marked the territorial boundaries with his carving. A living oak bears our family name, he seemed to be saying with each letter. Let all who see, stop and pay attention. Let them remember! Let them remember that there was such a family as ours!

Almost a lifetime after the boy’s carving, his mother, then in her 100th year, would say to him, “Yes, I do remember now there was such a person as I.” Even through the thickening fog of her dementia and her leaving, she recognized the person she had been and gave to her the dignity of recognition -- as she might have recognized an old acquaintance whose name she had forgotten. And the man at this moment would write her name among the stars or spell it in flowers. For she was someone as special as life itself. And no one deserves to be covered by the cold snows of oblivion. We all deserve to be remembered, if not individually, then collectively, as humankind.

We, too, were here.

The carvers among us are not only boys with jackknives; they are men and women who want just as desperately to leave something behind. To say it with Gothic cathedrals, hanging gardens and steel fingers that claw the sky. We, too, were here! To say it with stories, myths and legends. To say it with the symphonic swell of sound. To say it with the humble things -- the baking of bread and the mending of clothes. The love of one another. The tending and caregiving and the patient waiting! And even perhaps the courage to have a child who also may grow to be a carver of trees.

Harry Paige writes from Potsdam, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998