By Bob Kealing
A steamy Sunday afternoon isn’t the best time to go walking about in an old, sun-drenched Florida cemetery. Yet here I am. Employees tell me Greenwood Cemetery is Orlando’s oldest, if you don’t count the old church graveyards. Situated just south of the teeming East-West expressway, you see a microcosm of the city here. Yesterday and today. From the northwest corner, headstones face an ever-growing city skyline. The gleaming new Orange County courthouse stands in tribute to central Florida’s continuing economic prosperity. As tourism goes, so goes Orlando. The thrill ride shows no sign of slowing. As for the past, Greenwood Cemetery has an adjoining urban wetland; a throwback to when this kind of area was commonplace. You might catch a glimpse of a wading heron, an elegant egret, or a swooping crane showing off its enormous wingspan.
Jack Kerouac’s sister Caroline (nicknamed Nin) was buried in this cemetery on September 22, 1964, I’m here to visit the grave of the only member of Jack’s family buried in Florida. Kerouac, his mother and his sister lived here in Orlando for years.
The cemetery office was closed so I enjoyed the relaxed pace of trying to find the grave on my own. Once in awhile I stopped for some grateful rest under shade trees where I could find them. My patient partner Karen indulged my curiosity and helped me walk the daunting, hilly expanse of those interned.
I passed row-after-row of aligned stones dedicated to the young Army soldiers who lost their lives in Korea; a perfect post-mortem formation. And there are many more of those who died in less heroic fashion: A thirteen-year-old boy who’s headstone carries a poem about deer hunting; the young blond-haired greaser who died in 1957 at age 20, the kind of free spirit who might have read On The Road. It was published that very year. From a small, round picture the young man stares back at you in a black tee-shirt with cut-off sleeves. His eyes show the confidence you only seem to find in youth. You find graves adorned with flowers spelling out M-O-M. And there’s an entire section just for babies.
My thoughts turned to Jack’s widowed-mother Gabrielle (nicknamed Memere). What misery she must have suffered here that day in 1964. What optimism she’d had over the years that her family might overcome their past tragedies to live in a happy Florida home. The Kerouacs and Nin’s family, the Blakes, had lived around the corner and down the street from each other. Whatever the combination, it just never worked out. By the time Memere came here that September day, her only daughter was dead at 45. Her son Gerard had died at a very young age, and her surviving son Jack was so distraught at his sister’s death he’d locked himself in the bathroom in St. Petersburg. Memere’s children were all somewhere else as a Baptist preacher prayed over Nin’s body.
Jack wrote about the treasured memories of himself and his sister in their youth. Their parents used the French word Ti--for little--to describe the children. There was the time Ti Nin was ten and Jack just eight. The two were enamored by the brawny build of a family friend. Show us your muscles the children beseeched. When the friend obliged, "Nin hung from one bicep and I hung from the other whee..." There’s a picture of them from that time. It’s 1930. Nin is standing outside the family’s clapboard home in schoolgirl kneesocks holding Boopsie her cat. She towers over serious-faced little Jack.
Having covered seemingly the entire cemetery, we still hadn’t found what we were looking for. I returned to the cemetery office another day and found out why.
Armed with a pragmatic map, I followed the trail an office manager outlined in red. A city worker saw me meandering towards the spot and helped me with the search. And there in section four, eighty feet or so behind the double marker of ‘Martinsons’, just to the left of Edna Bourque’s grave, under the soothing shade of a Maple tree, I found-
-An empty patch of grass.
The cemetery people insisted that was it. No stone or sign to mark Nin’s final resting place. There must have been some mistake I thought. After all, this was the woman immortalized in many of Jack’s books (and books about Jack and his family). She’s an integral part of his so-called Dulouz legend. An unmarked grave? She’d even been in the service, and World War Two. No military marker?
My mind kept going back to Nin’s radiant face. I remembered what must be a wartime photo, in her uniform next to Jack and between Gabrielle and father Leo. It looks like a scene out of It’s a Wonderful Life. From the Kerouac CD-Rom, there are other vintage photos of Nin: Again with Jack at Rockaway Beach circa 1945, at the family home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, with her only son Paul. He was born prematurely by emergency c-section. Some though Nin wouldn’t make it.
From biographical accounts and Jack’s letters, it’s clear Nin’s last years were far from wonderful. Her husband Paul Blake Sr. deserted Nin and Paul Jr. She tried to keep up the facade that all was well with her family. But friends remember her trying to sell off pieces of furniture. Then Nin gave up her house. She tried to manage an eight-unit walk-up apartment complex and raise a teen-aged son on her own. In a 1964 letter to John Clellon Holmes, Jack said his sister wasn’t getting support money from her husband. To earn a few extra dollars, Nin and her son cut lawns around the complex. When Paul Blake Sr. finally said it was over, Memere told friends Nin suffered a fatal heart attack. Paul Jr. had gone out for soda, and came back to discover his mother dead on the couch.
She weighed about ninety pounds when she died.
One of her Orlando friends told me with a sigh, Nin "had died of a broken heart." Her dying marriage eroded her will to live. It shocked me when I found out the ashes of Paul Blake Sr. are in the same plot; joined in death after a separation many blame for ending Nin’s life prematurely. I found out later, Paul Sr. had said he intended to put up a stone to mark Nin’s grave. He had eight years to do it and never did. There are no words for them, or between them. No mention of Nin. So here I make my own.
On Memorial Day, we placed a little United States flag on that empty patch of ground. Only we know who it’s for.
(c) 1997 Bob Kealing and DHARMA beat #8