Graveyards fascinate me. They are a repository of local history, but what is more interesting is that they are also a record of moral history - what is inscribed on stone in a person’s memory. Those final words boil down what things those people stood for that can be regarded as true and lasting.
There are a few mini graveyards of note around my area. One is in the middle of a residential neighbourhood and is one of Oakville’s earliest. It is a portion of the land deeded to United Empire Loyalist Philip Sovereign and in that plot lies the graves of some runaway slaves who came to Canada on the Underground Railway, and some sailors who died in storms back in the day when Oakville was a major shipping port for lumber to the U.S.A. This cemetery also houses the grave of another early settler, John Belyea to whom I am remotely connected, because our back yard looks out onto green space that used to be his apple orchards. Every spring I find a few stray apple sprigs in our back yard which seem to sprout out of nowhere, and I look out into that green space and think of John Belyea.
Coming up to All Saints Day, November 1st. I am reminded that the dead are with us sometimes more once they are gone, after the things they lived for had time to take root. I think of my parents when I ponder this truth, sometimes the span of a lifetime is simply too short to measure. The Church refers to this connection that goes beyond our lifetime as the communion of saints. We recognize the immortality of the human soul every time the Church asks the saints to pray for us - saints referring to those who have died “in Christ” and as such, have joined the club permanently.
It is true that saints are immortalized by what they left behind, rather than what they got out of life. The term “suffering saint” is unenviable, it refers to those who suffered, and whose patience produced good results... for someone else. If you polled people on the street, you would not get a long line-up of candidates wanting this title.
The bumper sticker that says “I am spending my kids’ inheritance” might be a more current take on what people really think about sacrifice. That set argues that they can only make others happy after they are happy first. While there may be some truth to this - it still disappoints me personally. I would like to think of life in more grand terms.
We all judge even if we pretend not to. When people die, we give them either a failing or a passing grade based on whether they left the campground in better shape than they found it. This battle between idealism and pragmatism brings me back to John Belyea. While Canadian history paints the United Empire Loyalists as heroes, those who are cynical, say that the Loyalists were no more than elitist prigs who ran away to Canada to maintain the class privileges they enjoyed with the Crown.
But human nature can surprise you. John Belyea was born in 1776 right when the War of Independence was beginning. When I do the math on the dates, I can see that the family only left New York State in 1783, seven years later, when it was clear that the war was lost and they had run out of options. In other words, they held on hoping things would turn out differently. They had to abandon all they had built and fought to maintain throughout the rising opposition of friends and neighbours. Their choices led to personal loss and displacement with no guarantees what the future might bring.
The Belyeas escaped by boat to Nova Scotia and had to start over in a tract of raw land adjacent to Twelve Mile Creek in Bronte. The Belyeas went through a trial of personal vision that called for them to sacrifice some things up in order for larger ideals to survive in another time and place. The only physical evidence of that hope, is the apple seeds that they took with them from New York to replant that dream of home elsewhere.
Though I cannot explain why, this is the vision of John Belyea that I would prefer to keep, it makes all the difference to what those persistent apple sprouts in my yard mean. Thinking that his hopes lived on in the apple trees, makes me smile every time I have to pluck up one of those stray roots. People like John Belyea add substance to memory, the belief that choices which lead to personal loss and sacrifice can go on to produce some good in the future.
When you die, accountants and bureaucrats will descend on your estate to cancel out all debts and make sure that the books balance. The Devil is sure to get his due. But God I think is the only one who keeps a record of all those things left over on the balance sheet, that were paid on into the future. The assessment of time only keeps that which you gave away.
Happy All Saints Day John Belyea. We are not all saints. It depends on the choices we make with our lives. But I have no doubt that you are on the list. Every time I see one of your apple trees sprout up in my back yard I am filled with an inexplicable sense of hope.