A recent trip to Tasmania finally gave me the opportunity to find the grave of Meryl Travers-Smith, my mother’s cousin. She was perhaps the last direct link in my family’s connection with China, having lived there up until the start of WWII and then been interned by the Japanese at Weihsien Camp in Shantung Province.
I knew that her ashes were buried at Cornelian Bay cemetery in Hobart because I went to her funeral there in 1998. I had tried to find her grave once before when visiting with my parents, but on that occasion it was late in the afternoon, the cemetery office was closed and, having no idea where the grave might be, we ended up looking frustratingly in the wrong place. We were also travelling with my son who was a toddler back then and, rather mysteriously, he developed a high temperature while we were at the cemetery, becoming fretful and miserable. So we hightailed it back to the hotel and never returned.
This time I went in the morning and, after trying unsuccessfully once again to find it myself (why don’t you just stop and ask for directions?), I eventually inquired at the office. The woman there gave me a map and drew the route with a yellow highlighter. It turned out I was looking at completely the wrong end of what is a very large cemetery.
So eventually I found her in the Derwent Gardens right at the far end overlooking the Derwent River. As soon as I saw it, I knew the location made sense. It feels slightly more established here compared to other parts of the cemetery. The brick chapel here has been superseded by the more modern chapel near the car park next to the crematorium. That’s where I had been looking because that’s where the funeral service had been held.
I should have realised though that just because Meryl died in 1998, that’s not where she belongs. Her final resting place is alongside her parents who died in 1957 (Peter - a local artist) and 1967 (Hilda - the eldest Amazon in The Skating Party). That’s why she’s at the far end of the cemetery overlooking the river. It’s a good spot.
It’s funny, isn’t it? I only knew Meryl as an elderly woman, and then only briefly, so I never really thought of her as a child, but it makes sense that she should be reunited with the people who cared for her most and for whom she cared most.
I only met her once, soon after I arrived in Australia in 1988. Afterwards I spoke to her on the phone a few times, once shortly before she died when I repeated my intention to visit Tasmania again and see her once more. “Well, you’d better be quick about it,” she said, in her waspish, indomitable style. But I wasn’t, and then it was too late.
I flew down for the funeral instead and then, later, visited with my parents when we tried unsuccessfully to find her. I felt like I had a bit of atonement to do.
The Derwent Gardens is a strange mix. Red brick walls lined with memorial plaques shelter the rose gardens from the cold Southern Ocean winds. The rose bushes are planted in neat rows, carefully staked and pruned. It speaks of a lost age, an Anglo-centric Australia of blooming perennials and green lawns. I can see why Meryl would have liked it here. She loved her garden. Her gardener was one of the people in the small crowd at her funeral to pay tribute to her, talking about how kind Meryl had been to her and how much she had loved her garden with its peach tree.
Now she’s here, the metal plaque on the concrete plinth nestled in between her parents. ‘Dearly beloved daughter’ it says. Again, it seems odd for me to think of her that way, as someone’s daughter, but in many ways that’s what she was, the dutiful daughter, coming here to live with her parents when they were forced out of China and then caring for them, first Peter who was sick and never really recovered from his wartime experiences, and then Hilda, my mother’s favourite aunt. Meryl never married – although she hinted at ‘affairs’ – never had children, so the line ends here in this quiet, formal space carved out at the end of the earth. From here I can look straight down the Derwent River, under the Tasman Bridge and out to sea. Next stop Antarctica.
Looking at the plaque, I realise that the next day is the anniversary of her death. What a coincidence. I didn’t even know, although I could easily have looked it up amongst all the births and deaths data I’ve collected about the family. More thoughtlessness.
Having found the grave though and, in a way, having reconnected with Meryl, albeit on opposite sides of a great divide, I resolve to return the next day with some flowers – it doesn’t look like anybody has been to visit here for years, and why would they? – a small gesture of remembrance which says that, despite appearances to contrary, there is someone here who remembers, and cares, and who keeps these people alive, albeit tenuously, in the memory and because it matters.