In my adolescence and early teens, I had the good fortune to spend a couple weeks of summer vacation on Cape Cod with my friend Anne and her family. Anne's mom was a high school English teacher with a fascinating blend of etiquette and quirkiness. When we visited a local grist mill, she encouraged us to role-play Don Quixote fighting windmills; when we went clamming, we were treated to lengthy explanations of the plight of local fishermen. I came to expect a new perspective at every turn.
So the day she handed me a long roll of white paper and a brown wax block, I wasn't surprised. "Where are we going?" I asked. "To the cemetery," she said. "To collect poetry from old tombstones and hang them in the classroom."
I'd never seen poetry on a tombstone, just names and dates and maybe a little phrase like, "Loving mother," or "Forever at peace." But I was game. And sure enough, in the old sections of Cape Cod cemeteries, she led us to whaling-era tombstones etched with elaborate poems. Poems about the brave young man whose life was cut short by the merciless sea, the fair maiden who walked the pier awaiting his return and probably still walks there today, the stooped old woman who watched from the Widow's Walk atop her waterfront home, hoping and praying for her son's return. Dutifully, I rubbed the wax block over the paper to catch the words beneath, then carefully rolled the paper until it could be hung in the classroom. Honestly, I've forgotten most of them.
But the sentiment expressed on a very simple tombstone has stayed with me to this day. It was a plain stone, etched with a woman's name and the dates of her birth and death. Centered above that was the single phrase, "She hath done what she could."
I sat back and stared, stunned by that beautiful truth. Such an incredible testimony to a life well-lived. What more can we want than to do what is within our power to do? This woman may not have had money or success in the eyes of the world, but she had used the power given to her.
All these years later, that simple phrase still resonates with me. When I wrote my novel Risking Exposure, I integrated the search for that truth, that power into the main character's story line. The last words of the book are "I have done what I could." A totally satisfying ending for a story, taught to me by the memorial of an 19th century stranger's life.