Suburban Soliloquy

The Gravestone of Mrs Curtiss

I have friends who used to live in a house near the Princeton Cemetery. They led us on strolls through varied and fascinating gravestones behind a wrought iron fence and told us stories about them. The cemetery is chock-full of celebrities, such as President Grover Cleveland; Sylvia Beach, who owned the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris; and Aaron Burr, who unfortunately won a duel against Alexander Hamilton instead of the other way around. So many carvings, so many stories; but I became obsessed with one gravestone in particular.

Betty Ruth Cloke Curtiss’s grave is in the shade of an oak tree. That was how I first made the acquaintance of Mrs Curtiss on an autumn day in 1991. She was already buried. I was stunned by the unique design of her gravestone and thought it profound. I made a return visit that same autumn, alone, to contemplate it. The stone was special and I believed I would have found the person beneath it special, too, had I met her in life.

I studied that stone, even taking the time to measure all its dimensions. It is very simple, a gray rock with black speckles and all its sides are smoothed to a dull finish, but not glassy. A rectangular slab lies flat on the ground and standing erect on top of it rises the second slab, 44 ½ inches tall, but I will spare you my many measurements. The top is slightly arced, like an eyebrow, and the single most arresting feature of this stone is the large gaping hole, perfectly round, that bores clear through it. Below the hole it reads in two lines, “BETTY RUTH” and “CLOKE CURTISS”. Beneath them are the dates, “1931 – 1985”. No other words.

It is the hole that beckons. It is the hole that wants to be deciphered, because it is there and what is blatantly absent is a cross or star or crescent moon or angels. Immediately, I thought of the “O” at the beginning of “oblivion”, that it stands for nothing, and I wondered if she who was buried was a kindred spirit sharing my Atheism. I was also reminded of a Gahan Wilson cartoon in which a mob of people are kowtowing to a pedestal with nothing atop, and in the foreground one fellow is asking another, “Is Nothing sacred?” I did not see tragedy in this gravestone. It did not call for me to pity or grieve. Instead, I found intelligence and a sense of humor. In Mrs Curtiss’s gravestone I found daring and unconventional wisdom challenging the old dead fogies represented in the periphery of ordinary stones. Even so, on first seeing the stone, I had declared, “a suicide,” and then tried to disregard it.

That autumn day eighteen years ago I wanted to know more about Mrs Curtiss than I was able to read from her gravestone. I left the cemetery and went to the Princeton Public Library across the street. It was easier than I expected it to be. The woman at the information desk led me to a wooden box containing index cards for everyone buried in that cemetery. There was Mrs Curtiss’s card with notations that obituaries were in the Princeton Packet, June 11th 1985, and Town Topics, June 12th 1985. On her card it also read “victim”. What did that mean? I went to the microfilm file.

“Betty Ruth Curtiss, 53 died Thursday.

“Born in Troy, N.Y., Mrs Curtiss had been a Princeton resident for 29 years. She graduated in 1953 from Vassar College [she was a chemistry major] and had been an instructor at the Princeton Adult School and the Pratt Graphic Center, New York City.

“She was vice president of the Arts Council of Princeton and a member of the Princeton Art Association, the International Society of Copier Artists, the Printmaking Council of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Designer Craftsmen.

“Surviving are her husband, Howard C. Curtiss, Jr., a professor at Princeton University; a daughter, Lisa Crosby of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a son, Jonathan Cloke Curtis of Boston, Mass.; her father John B. Cloke, and a sister, Sandra Hill, both of Brockport, N.Y.” and so on.

The card in the wood file also informed me that there was another piece about Mrs Curtiss in that same issue, so I moved the microfilm to page 3A and discovered: “Drowning victim was active Princeton artist”. I read the column by Kathleen Cannon. “Betty Ruth Curtiss created ‘quite beautiful’ work as an artist during her life, said the director of a local arts center.

“The body of Mrs Curtiss, 53, of … was found in Lake Carnegie Thursday morning….” This interesting woman I was first beginning to know had committed suicide. I went back to earlier accounts, before the body had been identified. She had been discovered by two off-duty policemen who were fishing from a rowboat. Her body, wearing street clothes, was floating twenty-five feet from the east side of Lake Carnegie, between the Harrison Street and Washington Road bridges, where the water is only thirty-three inches deep. She had left a note for her family.

Why should it have pained me? I never knew her. I was only guessing she was someone I would have liked.

I read on. “’She had a very original mind, one of the most original,’ said Ms. Reeves [Anne Reeves, then Art Council of Princeton’s Director].

“‘She would make Xerox copies of sneakers and make beautiful postcards and stationery,’ said Ms. Reeves, noting the artist also exhibited and held workshops at the Princeton Public Library, the Kingston Post Office and the Newark Museum.” In 1991, I had been producing Xerox artwork and crafting my own postcards, unaware that anyone else was doing so. This was an important coincidence to me. The imagined kinship grew stronger, her suicide more appalling. In my notebook from that time it reads, “I was conscious of feeling sad, but was nevertheless surprised by my reflection in the screen when the microfilm image vanished and the photocopy was being produced. I had never seen my face with so stern and puzzled an expression. What I was feeling was so obvious in my face.”

I could not leave the story alone. From the library I went to the Arts Council of Princeton, a red brick building at the southeast corner of the cemetery. There I found Elizabeth Lombardi painting in a studio. I audaciously interrupted her. She wanted to know if I was a journalist. I explained as best I could my interest in Mrs Curtiss stemming from discovering her gravestone. My notes were for myself; eighteen years ago I had no plans of ever publishing this story.

She had known Mrs Curtiss, somewhat, and happily shared with me those good memories. She provided the first and only physical description I would have of the living Betty Ruth Cloke Curtiss, a woman of short stature and heavyset. Ms Lombardi described her as a bundle of energy, always engaging people in fun art projects, sociable and cheerful. She talked of a party Mrs Curtiss threw at which she handed everybody erasers and razors, and had them carve rubber stamps. So how could she have -. Ms Lombardi didn’t know Mrs Curtiss well enough, yet thought her sensitive and capable of deep depression. Such times must have been rare and, perhaps, at such times she refrained from being seen. Still, she was aware of Mrs Curtiss’s depression just before her suicide. It stemmed from the death of her mother. But who’s to say?

I had never seen the artwork of Mrs Curtiss. The Council’s gallery that day was having an exhibit of postcards. I was excited for a moment, but they were not her postcards.

A week later I happened to be visiting the Art Museum at Princeton University. There I met another woman who knew Mrs Curtiss. She worked behind the counter of the tiny museum store. When on a hunch I asked, the woman’s face beamed with happiness. Mrs Curtiss had this affect on those who knew her, those who held only wonderful memories of the woman.

Eight years after that, Ms Keogh and I were invited to a special event of “Art & Cuisine” at the Church Street Bistro in Lambertville. Soup of Crimini Mushrooms, Port Wine and Fresh Cream; Cultivated Prince Edward Island Mussels with Shallots, Aromatic Herbs, Oceanic Broth, Fresh Tomatoes and Extra Virgin Olive Oil; Salad of Red Oak Leaf and Butter Crunch Lettuce, Roasted Beets, and Mango in a Honey Champagne Dijon Vinaigrette; Grilled Black Angus New York Strip Steak with a Green Peppercorn Sauce, Gorganzola, and Crisp Parsnips; and concluding was a Pumpkin Cheesecake with an Almond Sabayon. However, we were there mostly for the art.

The artist was the intriguing photographer Owen Luck. He and his camera were with the Oglala Lakota during the 1973 “incident” at Wounded Knee. On the occasion of this dinner, the walls of the restaurant were decorated with his more current works. He had been eager to shoot a portrait of Ms Keogh and me together, having been given a gift by Ms Keogh of a portrait she painted of him. His portrait of us never came about and we have since lost touch with him.

It was at this wonderful affair, while milling around with cocktails in our hands, that a very excited Ms Keogh 
rushed over to me wanting to introduce me to someone. I was presented to a tall, distinguished, elderly gentleman with hearing aids affixed to each ear, and a shorter, flamboyantly dressed woman with beautiful craft jewelry and an enthusiastic friendliness. “This,” Ms Keogh declared, “is Professor Howard Curtiss and his wife Betty.” I was stumped, not recognizing the name. Ms Keogh then added, “Curtiss, as in Betty Ruth Cloke Curtiss!” It sunk in slowly and when I at last understood who I was meeting, there was a disturbing moment realizing his wife was still alive?!?! They quickly sorted it out for me. This was his second wife who just happened to have the same name. Was she also an artist, I asked? If I remember correctly, she was in the theater arts.

Mr Curtiss and I talked and I tried to explain the impact his first wife had had on me without ever having met her, but it felt awkward. It didn’t seem appropriate. Was my interest in her gravestone a bit obsessive? Then I had to ask about it; why did she decide on that design for her gravestone and what did she mean by it? Mr Curtiss said he didn’t know what it meant, but if I wanted to know, I should contact his daughter, Lisa Crosby in Brooklyn. She had designed it. He assured me she wouldn’t mind.

It is ten years later, the autumn of 2009, and I recently brought my niece and my mother to see Mrs Curtiss’s gravestone. It was a mistake. My mother is uncomfortable in cemeteries with statuary. She looked at the hole in Mrs Curtiss’s gravestone with dread, describing it like a guillotine, a place to insert the head to have it chopped off. Then she softened her first impression and decided it was more like a pillory. Such impressions had been entirely beyond the scope of anything I could have anticipated. I will not allow these thoughts to be the conclusion to my essay.

I never did try to contact Lisa Crosby. I have decided I don’t want to know what the gravestone really means. I don’t want that gravestone to have a meaning. Every visitor should assign their own meaning to it. Rather than instruct the visitor, it should continue to present a mystery for the visitor to reflect on.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions,
the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"