My mother-in-law Noel died a little over a year ago. She was the sweetest and most accepting, and open-minded person I have known, apart from my own mom. I love her. I was proud to help take care of her for the last several years of her life.
Noel was also a trailblazer, coming here from Barbados in the 60s, and was one of the only black employees at several jobs she held. She was a woman of great dignity, proudly wearing white gloves and sitting in the employee lunchroom at Woolworth’s, while the white employees at the other tables often whispered and criticized and resented her. She also worked for many years, before getting extremely sick, for a New York City agency, and was well-respected and well-liked by the General Counsel and other attorneys in the office. She learned tax preparation and bookkeeping and also used those skills to help friends in need.
Noel was a devout Christian, and would almost apologize when she said grace before a meal, and included “Jesus Christ” in her prayer, in front of her Jewish son-in-law (that would be me). We had many long talks about so many things, including religion; and I have yet to meet anyone who embodies the essence of a “good Christian” as much as Noel, or understands and accepts my own religion, and sees it in the context of her own, as Noel always did.
My wife and I visit her grave regularly, and we joke about all of the various “neighbors” that she has now: she is surrounded by a mix of cultures in the non-denominational Evergreens Cemetery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Some of her neighbors are famous jazz musicians and artists. Some of her neighbors are the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire victims:
Near Pathside and Memory Gardens is a tall slab on which a woman is shown kneeling in despair. This marks a plot for victims of a terrible New York disaster.
On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out inside the locked exit doors of the Triangle Shirtwaist clothing factory located high in a ten-story building in Greenwich Village. (A woman’s shirt or blouse tailored like a man’s shirt, the shirtwaist was popular women’s clothing at that time.) Within twenty minutes, one hundred forty-six people – most of them Jewish immigrant women – were dead either from the fire or by throwing themselves out windows onto the sidewalks below. The victims of the fire whose remains were not claimed by friends or family were given a funeral attended by an estimated four hundred thousand mourners in a pouring rain, and then buried in several cemeteries. In the Evergreens’ burial ledger for 1911, listed on April 5 under “U” (for Unknown) are eight interments (numbered from 214,654 to 214,661). These were an uncertain number of victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire who were burned beyond recognition: an “unknown male,” six “unknown females,” and (most devastating) “several persons” so badly burned that not even their gender could be identified. One of the victims was subsequently identified and her remains were transferred to her family’s plot at Calvary Cemetery, a Catholic Cemetery. Originally interred elsewhere in the grounds, today the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire at the Evergreens lie under the kneeling woman, a statement both of mourning and of dedication to the safer work places that were mandated by state and federal laws after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
My mother-in-law was trapped inside of a frail body for decades, riddled with rheumatic illnesses and asthma. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory victims were trapped inside of a building for a few minutes…intentionally.
Rest in Peace. I cannot.