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Reflections on a memorial bench in Sandwich

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Susan Moeller
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I never met Irene but I think I would have liked her.

What little I know of her comes from the bench placed in her memory at Shawme-Crowell State Forest in Sandwich. It’s an old-fashioned park-style bench with wooden slats for the seat and a molded metal backrest that features frogs dancing across lily pads. Two engraved rocks sit on it. One reads, “Every day is a gift”; the other, “Live Life to the Fullest.” A carved circular stone leans against the bench and is inscribed, “You have left our lives but will never leave our hearts.” It features what would only be called a kitty cat surrounded by a winged heart. Of course, there’s also a paw print.

The current staff at Shawme-Crowell doesn’t know much about Irene except that she was a campground host — one of the volunteers who got a campsite for the summer in exchange for greeting campers and tidying bathrooms. The bench was donated by family members after her death in the early 2000s, they say.

I imagine Irene as the friendly sort who liked a good joke. I’m betting her RV was immaculate, with just enough tchotchkes
to make it feel like home and a string of Christmas lights dangling across the awning. I imagine she did not put up with any nonsense and had no patience for those who dropped cigarette butts around campsites or left trails of toilet paper in the restroom. But I also bet she was always ready with an extra folding chair and knew all the regulars. Perhaps the cat sat on the counter in the RV, watching out the window, and dreaming of the open road.

Irene’s is one of the dozens of commemorative benches I see everywhere these days — trails, beaches, dog parks and of course, cemeteries. There must be a half dozen at the Bass Hole in Yarmouth Port, all akimbo in order to accommodate them in the small space by the boardwalk. It seems like every bench these days has a plaque, immortalizing or thanking someone. Most invite the visitor to sit awhile and admire what was probably someone’s favorite view, and perhaps, as I do with Irene, imagine their personality.

One of my favorites is a wooden one built by Jacob Crosson, a clever Eagle Scout from Troop 52. It overlooks an open area called the Old Cornfield in Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Cummaquid. I think of Jacob returning as an old man to sit and watch the tree sparrows zoom over the field as he admires his youthful handiwork.

Of course, I also think about where I would want a bench placed in my memory, if my survivors were so inclined. I lean toward the practical, imagining it at the intersection of the Long Pasture headquarters driveway and Bone Hill Road. That’s the exact spot where I stop to put my shoes on when I’m walking home from the beach. Right now, there’s only a boulder there, where I sit and try to avoid tipping in the brambles while I wipe off my feet with my socks and tie my sneakers.

I’m fine with keeping it plain but if they wanted to engrave a few words, I suggest copying this bit of poetry by Merrit Malloy that I’ve always loved on the memorial bench of long-time Cape housing advocate Joel Wolfson:

“You can love me most by letting hands touch hands, by letting bodies touch bodies, and by letting go of children that need to be free. Love doesn’t die; people do. So when all is left of me is love, give it away.”