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When does graffiti cease being graffiti and start being a piece of history? Do you notice the “AR ER” painted on the rocks in the center of the photo below?

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I consider it a piece of history—it’s over 100 years old, and it has a very special meaning for me and my family.

Here’s the story. Both my grandparents families on my father’s side immigrated from Finland around the turn of the century. The Seppala family (grandmother’s side) purchased a home on Folly Cove in Gloucester, MA, right on the Rockport line in the late 1800s. It became a dormitory of sorts for newly arrived Finnish immigrants. The Ronkas with their five boys—Ensio, Arne (my granddad), Laurie, George, and Toimi—lived right across the street on the Gloucester/Rockport town line. Summers were spent swimming in the Folly, fishing, and climbing rocks, and winters were spent sledding, ice skating, and hanging out in the Finnish sauna.

When Arne and Ensio were somewhere in their mid teens, they thought it would be a good idea to make their mark on Folly Cove by writing their initials on the rocks. They decided that the better swimmer would win the right to mark their initials larger than the other’s. So, they held a contest—they raced each other across the cove. Arne won. So, around 1915, they took a bucket of pitch and made their mark, with “AR” being larger than “ER.”

The initials fade every now and then, and someone (we don’t know who) always refreshes them. I’m sure the residents of Gloucester and Rockport blame some young vandals. And they’re right… except the vandals would be over 100 years old now.

A couple of years ago, on what was around the 100th year anniversary of the race (we don’t know exactly when it happened), my sister Alix and I visited Folly Cove, and yep, I took out my kit and sketched away.

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It was fun imagining Arne and Ensio pushing off for their race from the very rocks I was sitting on. I felt a certain connection to my heritage and their youthful spirits. I imagined how much life has been lived since then—both by them and by me. And how they had hopes and dreams about how their lives would turn out, just as I do. They had no concept back then of the 21st century, and even less of a 40-something grandchild returning to this same spot. Arne and Ensio now rest together in a family plot at the Seaside Cemetery on the other side of the trees overlooking the Folly, a stone’s throw away. Coincidentally, Arne’s name is printed in larger letters than Ensio’s on their grave markers.

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Some day my parents will be buried there. And then me, if I choose that as my final resting place. Shown below is the Ronka family plot, and just down the “block” is the Seppala plot (my grandmother’s side of the family).

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Of course, everyone living now will all pass away.  And 100 years from now—2117—perhaps another Ronka will be sitting on the rocks, contemplating the lives of those who came before, wondering who keeps refreshing the AR ER.

And that’s the circle of life—expansion, contraction, expansion, contraction. One of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr writes about this. He explains that as the form and structure (i.e. the body) contracts, the spirit continues to expand. He posits that most people, if they come to understand this natural cycle, usually don’t “get it” until they’re in their 40s or so—when enough life experience has built up to reveal their limitations and the inevitability of death. Some people—those who have experienced great suffering early in life—get it earlier. And some people never get it, desperately clinging to that which is passing away. The difference between those who grow old and become caricatures of their worst parts and those who grow old gracefully is the recognition that the spirit is what lives on forever and the decision to attend to and nurture it.

May we all be in that camp.

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