Epilogue: Flowers for My Mother

Epilogue: Flowers for My Mother McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2003 > Spring 2003 > Epilogue: Flowers for My Mother

Epilogue: Flowers for My Mother

Epilogue: Flowers for My Mother

By Jim Panos, BA'42, MA'44

My mother died in 1924, of tuberculosis, in Saranac Lake, N.Y., where she was buried. I was four at the time. I always wanted to visit her grave, but the routine of living intervened. In 1976, half a century after her death, I finally managed it. Locating her grave proved surprisingly easy. I contacted my local mortician, who contacted the Fortune Funeral Home in Saranac Lake, and

I had the name of the cemetery and the number of her grave within a couple of days.

My wife and I made the trip over a rainy summer weekend. We drove along a dingy Main Street, which dead-ended beyond the Saranac River in front of a yellow frame building. We visited the Robert Louis Stevenson cottage, where the writer had sought the elusive cure for tuberculosis. Then we went to the Fortune Funeral Home.

"Let me call the cemetery caretaker for a map," Mr. Fortune, the proprietor, said. "This grave number is in an old section I'm not familiar with."

He made his call. "Charlie's gone fishing today," he said, "but let's go to Pine Ridge, anyway. The gatehouse may be open."

A bumpy dirt road led past a lumberyard to Pine Ridge Cemetery, hemmed in by the grim backsides of clapboard houses and an abandoned railroad track. It sloped gently down a small hill strewn with uncrowded graves.

Mr. Fortune tried the gatehouse door. It was locked.

"I guess we'll have to try again tomorrow," he said -- and our hearts sank. "I'll call Charlie about the keys tonight." He must have seen the disappointment in our eyes, for he hastened to add, "If you want to look for yourselves, feel free. Try that old area over there."

The cemetery was alive with gnats as we searched vainly for my mother's grave in a fine drizzle. After half an hour, we gave up. We got back to our hotel in a downpour. Frustrated, disheartened, we slumped into a couch and turned on the TV.

Presently, someone knocked on the door. I opened it. A beaming Mr. Fortune stood framed in it.

"I found it!" he cried triumphantly. "I got the keys from Charlie's wife and went and got the records."

He handed me my mother's death certificate. It indicated that she had been born in Greece in 1897, that she lived at 4 Riverside Drive, Saranac Lake, N.Y., and that she had died of pulmonary tuberculosis on November 28, 1924 -- at age 27.

"It has a substantial stone, too," Mr. Fortune said.

"How come the address is 4 Riverside Drive?" I asked. "Wasn't she in the sanatorium?"

"Apparently not," Mr. Fortune said. "Trudeau Sanatorium was very expensive. Local families took in tuberculars as boarders then. It was a sort of cottage industry around here."

"Where is 4 Riverside Drive?" I asked.

"Do you know where Main Street is?" I nodded. "Do you know where the Saranac River is?" Again I nodded. "Well, Main Street dead-ends at Riverside Drive on the other side of the river. No. 4 is a big, yellow apartment house right there."

The yellow frame building? My spine tingled. Tears welled in my wife's eyes.

We followed Mr. Fortune back to Pine Ridge. We walked with him to a cluster of graves on level ground. He pointed to one of them. He didn't have to. The name of Cornelia Panos leaped out to me from her headstone.

It was a small stone, about two feet high, two feet wide, and six inches thick. It arched gently at the top and slanted forward in a humble, prayerful stance. A simple cross, carved on the upper half of the stone, cast its silent blessing on my mother's name. Beneath that, her landmark years on this earth, carved generously as 1867-1924 by a careless stone mason, who had inverted the 9 in the year of her birth.

I had found my mother at last. We prayed, and said goodbye.

I thought this story had enough human interest to write it up as a Mother's Day piece for my hometown newspaper. The next year it was reprinted by a Saranac paper, which splashed it across page one on Mother's Day.

Later that week, I received the following letter from a reader in Saranac Lake. It carried no name or return address.

Dear Mr. Panos:

My wife and me read the enclosed article with much feeling. We live on the pine ridge above the abandoned railroad track, just a short distance from your mother's site.

Today, Mother's Day, we visited the cemetery for the very first time ever and, surprisingly, in about a minute of time, found your mother's stone. It was a lovely summer afternoon and as we returned through the woods to our house, we paused to pick some spring flowers (trillium, adder's tongue, wild bluets) and I returned to the site and placed them by your mother.


For the first time since her death in 1924, my mother got flowers on Mother's Day. In a sense, they were from me.

Jim Panos is a retired travel agent and freelance writer who lives in Port Washington, N.Y.

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