A Conversation for the Ages

The first two words of Mary Oliver’s poem are ‘tell me.’ Everyone has a story, and everyone harbors a secret desire for others to ask us to tell it. At present we have the honor of listening to Mariah’s mom Rosie, as she tells us her stories of life at age 90. We’re recording her voice, asking her about every aspect of her one wild and precious life, its ups and downs, its ins and outs. This conversation for the ages is exactly the kind of project I wish I’d had with my own parents. It’s gratifying, interesting, amusing, happy and sad by turns. And it feels so good to see Rosie light up as the narrative flows, and recollections come to her. As shy as she is, she’s happy we asked.

Rosie is a bit reluctant to tell us her tales; she’s not one to volunteer much. But once we get her started, she rambles on and on about life on the farm, her eight siblings, mom and dad, school, holiday events, and every aspect of her life in rural Iowa. Some of her anecdotes are insightful and funny.

Here’s a sample: When she first learned to drive, she was motoring along with her dad, doing the best she could as a rookie driver. Her father said “you’re weaving around, driving like Joe Digney!” It turns out Joe was the town drunk. Rosie smiled at the memory, then she embellished it a bit, to put it in the best light, as she always does: “Everybody liked Joe Digney.”

I wish I’d asked my parents to tell me their story. They’re both gone now. It’s too late. I have fond memories of them, scattered bits and pieces of things they touched, photographs of them, and their DNA of course, which I assume is where I got my sensitive nature, my impulse to go straight at life heart-first, the admixture that prods me to such regrets as this. It came from them. But what treasure trove of knowledge did I miss?

My Parents in 1946

The two love crazed kids above had quite a story to tell. Shortly after this black & white picture was taken their wild and precious lives took off in technicolor, as they did their part in making the baby boomer generation anomalous, helping to fill maternity wards to the rafters. I never once asked them to ‘tell me’ about it.

My mother was Irish in every sense of the word. Mary Martha Barrett had a heart as big as the Donegal sky, and she wore it in plain sight. Mom took in strays. She always placed an extra dinner plate, just in case. She cried at card tricks. My father, the outwardly stoic Englishman tried to hide his warm and fuzzy side, but his compassion and caring poked through anyway, allowing his warm and gentle soul to show, and to override his stiff-upper-lipped British side. I never asked about their lives, darn it, and I wish I had.

This much I do know: They produced ten kids in the span of 19 years. I’m number two of that brood. Irish-Catholic family tradition assigned me, number two son, the role of family priest. I became the family writer and archivist instead. But it didn’t occur to me to write the story directly in front of me, the tale my parents had to tell: Their mid-war meeting; their courtship in the summer of ’42; their marriage and settling in time, as unsettled as it must have been surrounding themselves with diapers and bottles and baby-bills. I simply never asked. It wasn’t until my dad was dying in 2006 that it occurred to me to archive his story. By then he was much too feeble, too fragile, and quite deaf, so our conversation for the ages never happened.

Thus, our conversation with Rosie

This is what drives us to record and archive Rosie’s story. Every night over dinner we listen to Rosie tell her life tale of 90 + years. We choose questions from a list we’ve put together, itemizing such things as early farm life, her eight siblings, chores, holiday events, good times and bad times, the Depression, the War, her courtship with Mariah’s dad and their marriage, her own six kids, and the loss of the last one. We’re asking Rosie to tell us about her one wild and precious life. ‘Tell me’, we say. And she does.

So, coming soon, we’re going to compile many of Rosie’s stories in book form, and offer them around to family and anyone else interested, with her approval, of course. If there’s an elder, a father, or mother, or grandparent or just an older friend you’d like to memorialize, rest assured they’re likely more than happy to share their saga with you. Try it. Just say ‘Tell me…’

Thanks for reading.

The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

The Black Angel

The legend of Iowa City Oakland Cemetery’s Black Angel is complicated. Like many stories passed down through the ages about her, especially through oral history, the Black Angel’s tale has twists and turns and all the rabbit trail features of our current incredulous modern messaging. When I first arrived in Iowa City back in 1983, it wasn’t long before I heard of the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery, and the many often conflicting narratives that surrounded this peculiar and riveting monument.

The Black Angel site has brought so many hoary and shiver-producing tales it’s hard to sort them out. The statue is eerily beautiful in its own way, its patina blackened by time and the elements. Of course its position in a cemetery lends automatic cachet to its value as a chill maker. The fact that there isn’t a lot to actually do in Iowa City Iowa adds to the generation of these tales as well. Here are a few of the myths, tall tales, beliefs, superstitions, and prohibitions surrounding the Black Angel.

  • Don’t touch or kiss the angel, or you’ll die instantly. Unless you happen to be a virgin. (More on this below.)
  • Pregnant women must avoid the angel, and never stand in the shadow of her wings, or you will lose your child.
  • The Black Angel is haunted.
  • She is cursed.
  • She weeps on the date that Mrs. Feldevert’s son Eddie Dolezal died.
  • Teresa Feldevert’s many sins caused the angel to turn black.
  • On the night of Teresa’s funeral the angel was struck by lightning, turning her black.
  • A preacher’s son is secretly buried beneath the angel.

The story of The Black Angel is indeed murky. Most of the myths surrounding her were hastily conjured and are easily dismissed. Her black patina, for example, is easily explained. The statue was cast in bronze by Chicago sculptor Mario Korbel, and even before she went up in Oakland Cemetery in 1931, the bronze had oxidized, and turned dark, due to the elements and oxidation.

The Black Angel’s presence caused an immediate controversy, and a lawsuit. Mrs. Feldevert, who had commissioned the monument, didn’t like it, especially its dark and ominous coloration, and she refused to pay the sculptor. She saw the oxidation of the bronze, and wanted the metal to stay the color it was, as a shining tribute to her dead son. The sculptor, Mario Korbel, knew the metal would discolor with time, and he tried to convince his client that a shiny colored tombstone wouldn’t make sense. The sculptor sued Mrs. Feldevert to get his payment. Korbel won his lawsuit, Mrs. Feldevert paid him for his work, and the angel was posted in Oakland Cemetery in 1913.

The Black Angel presides over the tomb of a family named Feldevert. Teresa, the matriarch, was born in the Czech Republic in 1836. She was a practicing physician & midwife who immigrated to Iowa City in the late nineteenth century. Her son Eduard ‘Eddie’ Dolezal died of meningitis at 18 years old in 1891, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery. Below is a picture of Eddie’s gravestone, the sculpture of a tree limb lopped off five feet above the ground, symbolizing a life cut short.

Eddie Dolezal: 1873-1891

Today the Black Angel serves as a kind of gathering spot, reference point to the rest of the cemetery, and initiation place for U of Iowa college students and other groups looking for ways to memorialize one event or another, either a fraternity hazing, a wedding, a divorce, or a funeral. Here are a few more local legends associated with Iowa City’s Black Angel:

  • No U of I female is considered a real coed until she’s been kissed near the Black Angel.
  • If she’s kissed in the light of a full moon, she’ll die within six months.
  • Further, if the girl is a virgin when she’s kissed, the statue will revert to its original bronze color within six months. (Note: She’s still dark)
  • Touching the angel at midnight on Hallowe’en means death within six years.
  • Teresa Feldevert lacked the money to have her own death date inscribed in the angel’s base. (This legend is true. The base reads as follows: Nicholas Feldevert 1825-1911, Teresa Feldevert 1836- ) She died in 1924.

The site of the Black Angel has been used for the occasional seance, several wedding receptions, Hallowe’en parties, and numerous New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Base of Eddie Dolezal’s grave

The hatchet buried in rock, with its broken shaft, symbolizes Eddie Dolezal’s curtailed life. The rounded pail lower right is said to contain the ashes of his father, though, like many stories emanating from the Black Angel site, that has never been proven—or laid to rest, so to speak.

Tokens & Artifacts

Above, at the angel’s feet the day we took these photos were several coins and other artifacts. These things are left there often, tokens asking for the Black Angel’s intercession for whatever need or desire the depositor feels.

The Family Feldevertova

The Black Angel statue is eight and a half feet tall, nine feet across, and weighs nearly two tons with the base. The tree stump tombstone next to it is Eddie Dolezal’s final resting place. His grave was once several feet away, but was moved in 1913 at the request his mother, to put Eddie closer to the family tomb.

Because we seem to be immersed in death narratives these days, with the novel coronavirus lurking behind every doorway, and every un-masked face, it’s a good time to reflect on a few realities: None of us gets out of this alive; everyone will have a legacy, good or bad; no one can control the when—where—why—how of their demise; and finally, there are likely to be rumors and superstitions about us and the way we lived our lives, stories that will persist long after we’re gone. So…

Those tales will twist and turn and lapse into myth, provided someone keeps giving them ink or oxygen. So perhaps the Black Angel’s durable lesson to us is simply to live the most transparent, consistently positive lives we can, so that narrative gets passed along to our precedents.

Coming up soon: Rosie: A Life Well Lived. This is a legacy project we’ve undertaken with Mariah’s mother Rosie. It’s a conversation for the ages, our effort to write Rosie’s life story, a narrative covering her 90 years on the planet. Every evening at dinner we have this conversation with her following a proscribed checklist of questions and topics. We record what she says, and then transcribe the story for future inclusion in a book. The project allows Rosie to share her (amazing) story with us and future generations, and it reveals a part of her we knew existed, but never had the honor to hear about. Next blog will contain excerpts from this conversation for the ages. Thanks for reading, comments welcome.