Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Hey, don’t knock peanuts

The graceful statue of Caterina Campondonico is among the most popular in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno because of how it was secured. Peanuts.

“It’s only peanuts” is an idiom that never made sense in our house. Peanuts meant everything to us. My father, Lawrence Conway Brennan (1918-1988), was deep in peanuts.

Not that we grew up in a peanut patch, but our father was treasurer of the Columbian Peanut Company in Norfolk, Virginia. His engagement in the nerve-wracking gamble of predicting peanut deliverables by the railcar-load, subject to all the possible whims of Mother Nature in several southern states, sent three girls to college.

Campondonico scrimped and saved lire throughout her life to commission Lorenzo Orengo (1838-1909) to sculpt this prime example of Bourgeois Realism art in 1881, prior to her death. She funded the monument, as fine as those of neighboring aristocrats, from a lifetime of sales of doughnuts and nuts on the streets and at fairs in Genoa. She clutches a rosary of hazelnuts and a pair of doughnuts in her hands. The restoration of the statue was completed in 2016 by American Friends of Italian Monumental Sculpture.

“The Peanut Seller” is far from alone in the 82-acre cemetery; she is in the company of more than 2-million other Genovesi. The cemetery opened its gates to welcome its first deceased occupants in 1851, and the majority of its monuments are from the period of the following hundred years.

In addition to Staglieno’s monumental pantheon and marbled halls for the dead, families erected individual house-like or chapel-like mausolea climbing up the surrounding hillsides on narrow “streets,” forming sort of a suburban village overlooking those resting down below.

If this abundance of photos fails to satisfy your taphophilia, you have a severe obsession. As do I. I finally added a separate category on this blog for locating and scrolling down through related posts: Haunting Graveyards.

And, maybe, in memory of Caterina “The Peanut Seller” and Connie, my father aka “Goober,” rethink that dismissive idiom. Perhaps even improve a few sayings. A peanut in the hand is worth two in the ground. A peanut sold can be a penny saved. The road to heaven is paved with peanut hulls.

Haunting the graveyard to unearth the past

The pains of death are past.

Labor and sorrow cease.

And life’s long warfare closed at last.

His soul is found in peace.

Headstone of Joseph Coker, 1799-1881

One day I found myself, sitting in the middle of the carpet surrounded by boxes stacked in an attorney’s office on the 30th floor, rooting through another woman’s purse.

This really was not a planned direction for my career, but, undisciplined, I have always let it take numerous unscheduled detours.

I wanted the vintage pocketbook to spill the story of Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker out on the floor in front of me. Although its contents provided tiny glimpses of her personality, it was going to take a lot more time and effort to flesh out her and husband Max. Thanks to the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund, I devoted two years to getting acquainted with the two hardworking dairy farmers who reside in the Coker Cemetery, resulting in the publication of The Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park.

The Voelckers’ farm was part of a community of dairy farmers clustered together just north of Loop 410 in San Antonio. These families were unified by school, church and graveyard into a tightly knit community – the Coker settlement, and the Coker Cemetery Association plans to reunite these families in a book.

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Farewell, my wife

and children all,

From you a Father

Christ doth call.

Headstone of James J. Tomerlin, 1858-1896

As the Voelckers did, many of these hardworking farmers retired to the Coker Cemetery. I went to visit them recently, hoping they would whisper tales to me.

The jarring sounds of bulldozers working on the new portion of Wurzbach Parkway crashing through the former farms at first spoiled the peacefulness. But the spirits in this bucolic setting gradually quashed the intrusive noise, leaving me and several deer free to wander in the past.

The hours spent in the Coker Cemetery revealed some of the names of the farming families populating the settlement: Coker, Gerfers, Hampton, Harrison, Jones, Marmon, Smith, Tomerlin, Autry, Dekunder, Gulick, Harper, Isom, Maltsberger, Pipes, Tomasini and Voelcker. While their dairies in the area known as Buttermilk Hill were swallowed by behemoth San Antonio, the nonprofit association maintaining this historical cemetery knows their stories merit preservation.

As families dispersed from farms, remnants of the area’s history scattered with them. The Coker Cemetery Association asked me to bring these back together as a gift to the descendents of all who rest under the tombstones behind the old Coker church.

Charged with weaving bits of historical information together to illuminate this oft-forgotten portion of San Antonio’s rural heritage, I find myself again looking for chards. A page recording births and weddings in a family Bible. A brand registration from the late 1800s. A class photo from the old Coker schoolhouse. A tax return from the 1920s. A long-forgotten diary or letters tucked away in a shoebox. Memories grandparents shared about families’ arrivals in San Antonio or life on the farm.

I am asking descendants to introduce me to their ancestors from the Coker community, to search their studies, basements and attics and dust off the cobwebs in their minds to share memories and artifacts for this project. To ensure their ancestors are:

Gone but not forgotten.

Headstone of Rebecca Ford, 1823-1881

Thank goodness for detours, always full of unexpected opportunities and discoveries.

Marked Un-Graves Haunt Morning Walks

I know whom I am supposed to be researching:  The large and unwieldy cast of characters living in San Antonio between 1910 and 1920 whose stories seductively slip their way into the pages of An Ostrich Plume Hat whether they forward the plot or not.  Their ever-present ghosts float above my desk, my bathtub, my pillow at night, beckoning me to resurrect their lives on paper.  

The last thing I need is the distraction of unrelated people haunting me.  Blame it on the failure of native grasses to take root quickly on the Mission Reach.  If the construction workers or stray dogs guard the entrance by Roosevelt Park, I am forced to cross Roosevelt to South Presa.  

And there they are.  Their names prominently etched in stone disembodied from any gravesites.  

Who are they?  I worry they are not resting in peace but lying lonely underground in unmarked paupers’ graves.  

Did ungrateful descendants collect their inheritances and then decline to pick up the tabs for their headstones?  Or were they never real people, just imaginary inhabitants of San Antonio invented to serve as samples for those shopping for monuments to loved ones?  Or are they mistakes, large typos carved permanently in stone? 

From Meier Bros. Website


The latter two theories are more settling.  Meier Bros. Monuments has been in business for a long time, since 1900.  Surely the brothers have made a few spelling or date errors.  

But the names kept nagging me.  After all, Edna Viola Clift was someone’s “beloved grandmother.”  I owe her just a few short clicks on or in census records.  She did exist, dying in San Antonio in 1977.  Another woman was a longstanding member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, still living just a couple of years ago.  How did she end up carved in stone with only her birth date? 

His stone proclaiming “Dios es Amor,” Severo O. Cervantez was born in Mexico in 1887.  In 1910, he made his living in “cement work” and resided on Division Avenue with his wife Francisca and two-year-old son Geronimo, both native Texans. 

Mattie was the one, however, who finally freed me to resume contact with the ghosts entitled to haunt me.  The letters carved in granite read “Martha May Lazrine Miller.” 

Mattie was born in 1869 and married Lee, her senior by 13 years.  The couple raised at least seven children on their farm in Del Rio, Mattie’s mother residing with them, perhaps to lend a hand.  

In 1918, the 5’6.5″-tall Lee applied for a passport so he could board a ferry-boat to take one of his sons to spring baths in Las Vacas, San Carlos, Mexico, to cure his rheumatism.  Mattie and Lee now lie together in Del Rio’s Westlawn Cemetery with some other stone at their heads.  

Lee Lazrine's Passport Photo


Thank you,, for giving me the answer I sought.  A major typo.  

Martha May’s maiden name was Miller, and she married Lee Lazrine. 

Rest in peace, Mattie.
Time for me to get back to work.