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Memories of Those Who Mattered

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Where else could I be, on the 10th anniversary of my mother's death, but at another wake?

Where else could I be but at a place that honored somebody like Ray Greuter, my Point Pleasant Boro, N.J. music teacher who taught me things others couldn't; who, like my mother, always flashed a broad smile at me, trying so hard to make me grin, because I wouldn't.

There he was again, on Thursday, in cut-out pictures of him pasted to construction paper, nearly every one showing him with that same long hair, mustache and clenched, shiny white, go-for-broke smile. "The Many Faces of Ray," it said, showing the Memorial Middle School teacher from the time he was hired, in 1970, until the time he passed last week.

Resting on his closed casket was his trumpet, the brass shining in the brighter-than-normal room light. In the background was the sound of his piano, with Ray playing on it, banging out a string of holiday tunes, from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and on, sounding like a middle-aged garage band.

As you heard it, playing over the small speakers at the August F. Schmidt Memorial Home in Elizabeth, N.J., you could see him all over again: Ray with his long hair and mustache, playing holiday tunes long after the holiday was over, flashing that playful, powerful smile so others would, too.

Ray Greuter turned into one of the great teachers of my life, the only one who could get me to care about the difference between a quarter note and a whole note, who would get me to even think of listening to a Supertramp album, let alone memorizing the lyrics to "The Logical Song," and the one who could get me to care about what John Lennon was really trying to say on "Rubber Soul."

In the same way my mother taught me to live and love life and laughter, Ray taught me how to love what others sang, played or composed.

These were the people who shaped lives, who shaped my life. They weren't famous enough to get an obituary in the big newspapers. But they were the people who cared, who gave me moments each day that I looked forward to.

Now they're gone: Ray, since Jan. 10, and Mom, since January 2003. But when we hear a song, or we see something on TV, or we remember an anniversary, or even go to a wake, we remember people like these and why they mattered.

Each day back in seventh and eighth grade, I looked forward to Ray Greuter's style, his groovy appeal. "Groovy Greuter" they called him. I liked how he engaged the not-so-engaged, and I'd marvel at how he'd grab a bored kid's attention by merely admiring his concert T-shirt.

Chances were that he not only knew the show emblazoned on the kid's shirt, he probably went to it, too.

I could be a sullen kid, feeling picked on by others who were bigger and stronger. I would walk into his class, at the Memorial Middle School music room, with my head tilting toward the floor, my face merely a shadow on my shoulder.

Ray would jump in front of me, crouching down slightly to level of my face. Then came the clenched, broad, playful and powerful smile. Most of the time, I laughed right back, because I had to.

Back around 1980, I looked forward to that, just as I looked forward to my mother's smile, her long laugh that you never wanted to end. You'd tell my mother a joke, and you never got something fake in return. If it was funny, she'd laugh until she was gasping for air.

My mother died in our house on Barton Avenue, in Point Pleasant Boro, N.J., on Jan. 18, 2003. Her wake was at the Pable-Evertz Funeral Home on Beaver Dam Road, close enough so everybody we knew could attend. People from my high school. People from Dad's school, Drum Point in Brick.

But even people from North Jersey who worked with me at The Bergen Record newspaper, way up in Hackensack, N.J., were there. Whether the drive was long or short, they still came, because they knew it mattered.

Ray Greuter's wake was in Elizabeth, far from the school where he taught for 38 years. Far from the district he taught in, Point Boro, the same one that took a chance on a 22-year-old musician with hippie clothes and eclectic tastes, way back in 1970s.

It was far from my mother's own grave off Trenton Avenue, where I planned to be Friday, the day of the anniversary. But in the guest book was a long list of people from far away, too. My old gym teacher. A guy I used to basketball with. Another former teacher. Another former student.

Whether the drive was long or short, they still came, because Ray still mattered.

Just a few miles away from the funeral home, in Elizabeth, was another graveyard, a place where a personal journey began. I first went to the Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, N.J., just over the Elizabeth border, in late 2008, once I heard that some of my family, my mother's ancestors, were buried there.

I had been planning on writing a book that was ultimately published in October 2011 called Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Famiy From Generations of Mental Illness. For my research, my first visit was to this graveyard, in 2008, where 10, maybe more, of my ancestors were buried. It was the trip that inspired me to keep digging, to keep moving forward with this book on mental illness, one that seemed next to impossible to write, and there were even smaller odds that it'd get published.

Back in 2008, I was writing about how my mother suffered her whole life, suffering over something that wasn't her fault. It was something we lived with, too, something that weighed heavily on me, and my family, back in those early teen years, back when Ray was struggling to teach me, and others, to be happy.

In between my mother's smiles and laughter, in between the joy we felt too rarely from her, we dealt with her struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, stuff that made us want to hide our smiles and swallow our laughter.

Stuff like her washing her hands until they were red and flaky, and her incessant questions to my father about things so trivial. Everybody at school seemed so normal. Some at school would mock me, others would smile at me, only they couldn't make me laugh, or even feel a little bit good, not like Ray could.

Back in 2008, I wanted to know more about my mother and her family. I wanted to know about those rumors that the people buried there suffered, too, like she did.

When I went there, I saw names I didn't even know. I saw my great-grandfather, great-uncle and great-great grandmother buried in graveyard plots, with headstones split in two or turned completely upside down. Somebody hadn't been there in 40, 50 years, even just to clean up a little. Maybe they just didn't matter anymore.

I went to the graveyard office and found out all I needed to know: All three were victims of gas asphyxiation, all likely suicidal. When the person pulled their information cards and told me what they said, her gasp said it all: I knew I had a story to tell.

I also learned something about my family, myself, and what was apparent. Mental illness was in my family, that it didn't stop necessarily with one person.

That day, back in 2008, began a period of discovery for me, a trip through libraries and town halls, through old hospitals and homes. That day began a period of finding out why my mother was the way she was, and why Mr. Greuter saw what he saw in my face, back when all that was weighing on me. That day, I found out why he felt he needed to cheer me up, when nobody else could.

Just a few miles from Greuter's wake, I went back there, to Evergreen Cemetery, because I felt my mother's spirit, just as I felt Ray's.

The gates were closed, and the cemetery was dark, with not a light was shining anywhere. But, in the darkness, I could see mother, just like I could see Ray, smiling at me like they did many years before, getting me to laugh, because I should.

This story first appeared on Patch.

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