Eric Wright saw the year first: 1946.
He gasped and steadied himself with a deep breath before calling out to Janet O’Hare and her husband, Scott, their eyes fixated on the frozen ground of the Southampton Cemetery — searching, wishing, hoping.
“There’s one here!” Mr. Wright shouted, the O’Hares racing over. “I can’t read the name yet.”
The cemetery superintendent plunged his hands into the grass, pulling tuft after tuft from the cold soil, unearthing a long lost cast iron plate. Rinsing it off with water as Mr. Wright dug with a shovel, Ms. O’Hare stepped back, speechless, and looked at the name: Barbara J. Nothnagle.
It was the name of a little girl who had lived for just 16 days before dying from an infection. It was the name of the older sister Ms. O’Hare never knew, but here, finally found.
“I really had no expectations that we were gonna find it,” Ms. O’Hare said. “Eric uncovered it on the first try and, all of a sudden, you know how this blank silence comes over everybody? It was like somebody from above had shot him a message of, ‘Here’s where the grave is.’ It really seemed kind of cosmic.”
Last week, nearly a month after uncovering the cast iron plate, Ms. O’Hare, her husband and Mr. Wright gathered around the grave once more as she placed an official memorial stone for her sister, now inscribed with the dates of her short life, May 11, 1946 to May 27, 1946.
“It was a very touching moment,” Ms. O’Hare said. “I feel a certain amount of closure and I think a certain amount of respect — to acknowledge a little soul like that.”
For the first five years of her life, Ms. O’Hare grew up across from the windmill in Water Mill, the sound of the passing train still vivid in her memories. Her father, a World War II veteran who patrolled the beaches in Southampton for German U-boats, had married her mother, a nurse at Southampton Hospital, after a whirlwind courtship and three days before he shipped out to France.
He returned safely to the East End and, in 1945, their family grew — starting with their first daughter, Nancy, whose death last year prompted Ms. O’Hare, who was born in 1948, to ask more questions about Barbara.
“My parents really never spoke of it too much. It was mentioned, but you never heard any details. It was some infection that she had and she didn’t make it,” Ms. O’Hare said. “I never thought anything more about it. Now, this past October, when Nancy died, that’s what got me to thinking about this other child. Something spurred in my head like, ‘Well, what ever happened? Where was she buried? What happened to her?’”
Because her grandparents are buried at Southampton Cemetery, Ms. O’Hare reached out to Mr. Wright for help and, on a cold January day, he escorted her and her husband to the “babies section,” which has seen roughly 80 children buried there since about 1942, the superintendent estimated.
And while he often goes looking for adult graves, he very rarely receives the same request for children, he said.
“Most of them aren’t marked,” he said of the graves. “Those placards are thin metal. Throughout the years, they’re sitting there and sitting there, and mowed over, and the grass dies, makes soil and the ground comes up. So it’s an indent in the ground and you look at it like, ‘I bet you there’s something down in there.’ There’s a lot of spots like that.”
Concentrating his efforts in the older area of the babies section — pointing to graves he’d previously uncovered that date back to 1938, 1942 and 1950 — Mr. Wright pushed his finger into one of the indented divots and, about 4 inches down, hit metal.
“Sure enough, damn, the first one. That was it,” Mr. Wright said. “I saw the 1946, I almost fell over. I couldn’t believe it. I got goosebumps. I was so happy for them, you know? Because that’s what Janet wanted to do. She wanted to respect that her sister was there and have that closure.”
As Ms. O’Hare washed off the grave and read her sister’s name, “then it became real,” she said. When they left the cemetery, she immediately called her younger brother and sister, and soon after, ordered the memorial stone — which Mr. Wright said he would sink into the ground once it thaws.
“This was all like divine providence,” Ms. O’Hare said. “It was just amazing.”
As published in the Southampton Press