Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Memento mori: Uncle Greer

More than 70 years ago, my great-grandmother, Mary Belle (Redlingshafer) Myers, assembled obituaries and other paper memorabilia related to her family and pasted everything into the funeral home guest/memorial book that she had received after the death of her husband, Daniel Myers the first, on 24 February 1933.

Among the items was a slip of lined writing paper upon which someone had drawn in pencil the arched top of a tombstone and written below it the inscription on that stone:

My Husband

Meet me
in heaven

W.H.H. Greer fell asleep
June the 24, 1866, age
40 years, 6 months and 24 days.
When will the morning come?

We should not mourn us
Those that meet no more
To us he is not dead
But gone before

Below the depiction of the tombstone was this note: "Those words in the book was his last words. This is the shape of the stone and the inscription as nice as I can give them. Price fifty dollars." I'm not sure which words were "in the book."

After a little digging, I figured out that W.H.H. (William Henry Harrison) Greer was the slightly older brother of my great-great-grandmother, Isabelle (Greer) Redlingshafer, and that the tombstone note had most likely been written by his widow, Catharine Minerva (Ramage) Greer, and sent to Isabelle following his death. Isabelle had moved west from Pennsylvania to Lucas County with her husband, John G. Redlingshafer, in 1857. Most of her family, including W.H.H.,  remained in Washington and Fayette counties in southwest Pennsylvania. Both Isabelle and W.H.H. were children of William R. Greer, a shoemaker by trade, and Mary Slemmons Greer, his wife.

I still had no idea where the tombstone was, nor did a know a thing about Uncle W.H.H. other than his date of death.

Many years later, cruising the Internet, I came upon two columns written by Glenn Tunney for the Uniontown (Pennsylvania) Herald Standard. Someone living near Uniontown had come upon a small and battered book entitled "Greer's Poems," published in Pittsburgh in 1853.

Although the quality of the poetry was debatable, both the finder and Tunney were fascinated because many of the poems and prose pieces in the book were set in nearby Brownsville, a once-thriving Monongahela River town. But who in the world was this mysterious W.H.H. Greer, Tunney wanted to know.  I was fascinated, too --- Uncle Greer had been a poet.

Two of us recognized Uncle Greer in the column, including another of his generations-removed kinfolk, Genevieve Hough Miller, a resident of Uniontown. Between us we were able to tell Tunney something about W.H.H. and also to discover that a good many copies of "Greer's Poems" were still around. Isabelle (Greer) Redlingshafer's copy, for example, has been treasured for years here in Chariton by my cousin, Ilene, I came to find out. There were at least three copies in Genevieve's extended family.

Another researcher discovered that there are copies, too, in the Library of Congress, the Yale University library and a number of other repositories.

None of this improves the quality of the poetry, but it's nice to know that Uncle Greer's work is still around. I found a battered copy on eBay the other day for $50, but didn't bite. Quite frankly, I'm more interested in Uncle Greer than I am in his poems.

We're not quite sure, of course, exacly how the poems came to be published in the first place --- perhaps twice (two types of bindings, both original, are found among multiple copes). W.H.H. was born in 1828 and so would have been in his early 20s when the poems were written. He was by profession a school teacher --- unlikely to be able to afford to have his own works published. Perhaps he found a patron. It's also a possibility, since the poems were published the same year he married Minerva, that she somehow contributed.

So we knew quite a big more about Uncle Greer by now --- even a photo of him turned up in a scrapbook belonging to an unrelated family in the Uniontown area. But we still did not know where that tombstone was --- and that's the reason for telling this little story now.

Revisiting last week Web sites I'd used previously when searching for information about the Greer family, I discovered that the tombstone inscriptions from Taylor Methodist Church Cemetery in East Bethelehem Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania, were now available online. And there was W.H.H., as well as his sister, Hester Ann (Greer) Hamilton and most likely another sibling, Mary (Greer) Geho. I think it's possible their parents rest here, too, in unmarked graves, since they lived nearby at the times of their deaths. So persistence paid off.

I still have no idea what became of Uncle Greer's widow, Minerva. There were no children and while it is possible she remarried it also is possible she didn't and  is buried in an unmarked grave next to W.H.H. Perhaps we'll never know, but persistence does seem to pay off.

Here's a sample of Uncle Greer's poetry, taken from the title page of that supprising little book that  remains as his principal memorial. I suppose 40 is a little old to die "romantically" young --- as poets do sometimes. Still, it's interesting to wonder what else he wrote and what he might have accomplished had he lived longer. And not a bad reminder that mortality sneaks up on us all --- Carpe diem, memento mori and all of that.

The Muse, hath my companion been
At morning, noon and night,
While Nature spread her varied scene,
Before my youthful sight.
And while my heart hath felt the power of Love,
That angel from the realms of light above,
Despair, at times, with horrible control,
Hath flung his garb round my soul.

1 comment:

Lori Ling said...

Thank you for sharing the poem. I have always been curious as to the poems as he was my 3rd cousin 4x removed and is one of several published cousins. Unfortunately I did not inherit the give of words, but admire those that have. I appreciate what you have shared with the world so thank you!