Fall 2019 Memorial Project

How do we handle loss? We’ve all felt it ourselves, or stood next to it, or watched it unravel the lives of strangers. But what do we do with it? Where do we put it?


In two of my classes this year, we read Amy Waldman’s 2011 novel, The Submission, a book that examines the depths of loss and the tensions that arise in attempting to acknowledge and contain it. The setup for the book is pretty simple: it’s two years after 9/11, and a committee has been formed to select a winner for a nationwide contest to design a memorial to those killed in the attacks. It’s a blind competition, so no one knows anything about the designers until one is selected. The committee chooses the winning design, and the designer is revealed. His name is Mohammad Khan, and he’s a Muslim. Naturally, controversies unfold and lives are damaged—some irrevocably.


Amidst these controversies, several issues emerge, and our discussions have tried to address all of them. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on two: the complexities of public memory and the purpose of memorials. Khan’s design—a garden laid out according to rigid geometry—is meant as a public monument that will contain and reflect the personal memories and emotions of those affected. But given the plurality (and sometimes cross-purposes) of these memories and the racial tensions in our society, the difficulties of this task become too much to overcome.


And yet, these characters need to remember the dead, to offer some memorial to them, to gain closure and begin to heal. In one scene, near the end, a character honors his dead father by placing a small stone cairn in the corner of a garden. Waldman writes, “With a pile of stones, he had written a name.” The gesture is minor but meaningful. It is, in fact, the only real act of memorializing in a 300-plus page book about a memorial.


To connect more closely with the spirit of this character’s act, I decided that my students and I should create a memorial of our own—one that would be both individual and collective. So I bought some river rocks at Lowe’s, hauled them to class in a bucket (nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process), and asked each student to take a few and place them somewhere on campus in memory of someone or something—a family member, a friend, a pet, a public figure, or even a thing or idea. After they found their spot and “wrote a name with a pile of rocks,” they took a picture and sent it to me with the name of who they chose to memorialize and some words in memoriam. The rocks were meant to transform our campus into a group memorial comprised of individual acts of remembrance. And because people or weather or time will undoubtedly unstack these rocks, the pictures were meant to make permanent our memorial (as only the Internet can). 

In this space, I—along with my Fall 2019 English 202 and English 203 students—present our memorial project, a collection of pictures, stones, names, and stories.

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This cairn is in memory of my father, Thomas Versaci, who passed away in January 2017 at the age of 91. I've written about my father before, most extensively in my book, That Hidden Road, so in the interest of not repeating myself, I'll just say this: he was born in New York, went to World War II, and came home to get married, have two sons, and work hard to give them a good life. He was unfailingly honest and loved his wife, sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. I can't listen to a Frank Sinatra song or watch a baseball game or sit at my office desk without thinking of him. I set up my memorial in a place that I pass by every day that I'm at work. Rest in peace, Dad.

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I decided to dedicate my portion of this memorial to a young family friend named Lauren who passed away a few years ago from a very rare disease, mitochondrial syndrome. When she was diagnosed, her mother, who is a close family friend of my family, asked if I would come and spend a few hours with Lauren every weekend, as the rapid progression of her illness made it hard for her to be around kids her age. I only spent a couple months with Lauren before she passed away, but every now and then I remember her bubbly, high spirit and how she would’ve been going into high school next year. I placed the rocks at a spot I am near every day. Rest in peace, Lauren.

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In memory of my Uncle Kevin

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This cairn is meant to memorialize my great aunt, Betty Johnson, who passed at the stubborn age of 72. She always had a pep in her step, a smile all the while, and a joy no one could destroy. She inspired me to never give up, be grateful for every morning I had the breath of life, and to set my goals remarkably high. I think about her every time I see beautiful flowers or gorgeous birds, as she surrounded herself with both. She kept young in spirit, graceful in boundless energy, and forever hopeful of the future. She would say things to my like, “Oh Apy, Apy, what are we going to do today to change the world?” She was a dutiful dreamer, which at times, cause some to dismiss her as delusional. However, she saw the best in people and was relentless in optimism. I miss her every day and she will never be forgotten.

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To the grandfather I never met, Trinh Nguyen. He served alongside American soldiers to fight the communist party during the Vietnam War. He came back to his home only to be met by ridicule and face prosecution from the Communist Party, but he made sure that his whole family stayed safe in this hostile place. He was later taken to a Vietnamese concentration camp where he died, so he didn't come to America with his wife and children, but he did what he could to provide them with a better life. Rest in peace, Grandfather. 

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This memorial is for my great-grandmother: Margarita. I chose to memorialize her in front of the library as a representation of her wisdom and character. My Abuelita was born and raised in Mexico. She died in 2015 due to natural causes. It's unclear as to how old she was at the time of her death, her birth certificates and documents got lost over the years. I last saw her in 2012 on a trip to Mexico; she was estimated to be around 111-114 years. When I first met her I was afraid of giving her a proper hug because she seems so small and delicate, I was afraid that if I squeezed too hard, I would injure and potential kill her! I quickly learned however that she was an incredible strong woman for her age. The secret she told me was to drink one beer a day as she opened a Corona with her teeth. She was full of energy and loved to crack jokes. She was also very smart and full of wisdom. She would tell my siblings and me stories of her childhood and many valuable lessons. She always stressed the importance of happiness. This idea that nothing in this life matters if you aren’t a good person full of happiness. To be happy means to be a good person to those around you and more importantly to yourself. If you’re happy in this life and content with the person you are, then everything else in life will line up naturally. Happiness, family, and faith are the most important in this life. 

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When it happened, I was an adolescent. Eighteen years have passed. Blessed that I had the opportunity to learn this language to offer my condolences. Compatriots, you have my deepest sympathy. I will keep you and your lost ones in my prayers. May all the victims of 9/11 rest in peace. From an American Muslim, Morteza Esazadeh.

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My memorial project is to honor and commemorate John Paul Michael Mariño. He was a student at Palomar College and a family friend. I did not know John Paul very well personally, but as a community we all felt the loss of such a fine young man. He died suddenly on March 11th, 2019. He just went to bed...and died. He was in a car accident but the doctors said he was fine. His death was sudden and painful to his family. John Paul loved life and lived it to the fullest with his friends and family. Everyone that I speak to who have known John Paul say they were changed, for the better, by his presence in their life. For his loved of athletics I have placed his memorial by the football field. It is carefully placed at the end of my 100 meter dash so that while I run I can think of him. When I want to give up in that little burst of painfulness I will think of John Paul and his family and push through. Rest in peace, John Paul Michael Mariño. 

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My memorial is in honor of my Aunt Desiree's childhood best friend Jennifer Goff. I thankfully have never lost anyone particularly close to me but Jennifer's story has deeply impacted our family's life and I feel her loss through my aunt. I never met Jennifer because she was brutally murdered at 12 years old. Her death was very sudden to my aunt as no one expects something so terrible to happen to their best friend. Her story was somewhat of a cautionary tale to me growing up but also made me feel my aunt's pain and sorrow. One day, my aunt and I had a very deep conversation about Jennifer and we went through memories of her and her own sort of memorial  of Jennifer. This was a moment I will never forget; as she shared her story, my aunt taught me to never take any moment for granted and to love and cherish the people in our lives at every opportunity.  I knew I wanted to make my memorial for Jennifer because she means so much to me because of what she meant to my aunt. Though she died so young, her life affected people who never knew her, which I think is beautiful. My aunt is such a strong person for overcoming such a tragic loss and it means so much to me to dedicate a space here in California for Jennifer (she lived in New York) so that her memory will live with our family and those who hear her story. 

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This memorial project goes out to my Aunt Keri Goldsmith. Just a couple months ago she died due to a tragic situation. She was very loving and caring to everyone but had her own personal problems that she didn’t take care of. That’s why I push everyone to go to therapy and get help when it’s needed. I decided to place my cairn for her right in front of my grandma's classroom at Palomar, so that my grandma and I can see think of Aunt Keri every time we walk past it . 

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This memorial is for my cousin David Hernandez, who passed away on September 8th, 2019, when he lost his internal battle against Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. David was someone that played a very influential part in my life. The man he evolved into after joining the United States Marine Corps was the type of man I wanted to be, so I joined the USMC shortly after he did. We no longer were just cousins; we had now become brothers in arms. The item placed on top of the cairn is the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, the official emblem and insignia of the USMC. The EGA is something that holds much value and can only be earned through much pain and suffering. It is earned once someone has proven themselves worthy of the title United States Marine. This symbol is recognized world wide and brought the two of us closer to each other than we had already been. I have placed my cairn at the base of the Palomar Veteran Memorial because this memorial itself honors other Marines who have passed and displays the EGA above their names. Every day I pass this memorial it reminds me of David, and the words he once told me: "Get an education, brother, so that you can be a smart Marine and a great leader."

I have dedicated my cairn to commemorate my late grandfather on my father's side, Waldo Alexander. I’m told often that I am the spitting image of my grandfather in his youth. After serving time in the military, he opened a family run printing press business out of Monroe, Louisiana. It was in that printing press my father learned his work ethic that he would one day pass on to me. My grandfather died the summer of 2004, leaving behind far more of a legacy than just five sons and three daughters.

This memorial is in dedication to Pat Braendel (September 1942- March 2017). She was a loving, dedicated and hard-working woman who had a heart of gold. Mrs. Pat was the founder and president of the Fallbrook Citizens Crime Prevention Committee (FCCPC) and GANAS. She dedicated her time to helping children. She allowed the kids to know that they always had an option in life, an option to help better ourselves and those around us. I was a volunteer at her program, which was where I met her. She mentored me and inspired me to go out and be the good that we need, to help those who are helpless. Mrs. Pat’s legacy will live on because of the impact she made with each individual she encountered.

Patricia Espiritu was a strong woman; she had 7 children. At the time, she, her husband, and their children were trying to immigrate to America from the Philippines, but the process was taking too long. Eventually, they settled where I am today, in San Diego, and grew the family tree. My mom was the youngest daughter of three daughters, and she gave birth to me. Each and every day I thank my grandmother Patricia for all the sacrifices she's done for everyone in the family; without her, I wouldn't be where I am today. Everything taught to me from here will stay in my mind forever as I journey deeper into adulthood. Rest in peace, Lola. I love you.

With my set of stones, I am writing the name Orton Knutson, my grandfather on my mother’s side. Although he passed before I was born, I learned to love him. My mom loves to tell stories about him and always talks about how good of a father he was. I love him because he was such a good father to my mother, and because he was the man my mother got to look up to. I chose to set up my memorial in an area I go to a lot. This area is a calming space that helps me find peace anytime I’m feeling stressed. My grandfather always was a comfort to my mom, and now I feel he is a comfort to me also. This cairn is dedicated to him. 

I've set a cairn up on the clock tower in memory of my late grand father Eliseo Alfaro. My grandfather has always taught me about the importance of time and how life revolves around it. He told me not to fear time, but to enjoy every second it offers. Time for the most part for some people is just a measure of how long the day has been, but through my grand father's teaching, I have learned that time holds memories. He told me, "When I'm gone, you will remember me through your memories and thank time that it gave us that moment, and whenever you feel down, remember everything I have taught you and the universe will fall back into your favor and always give time to the people you love because you can never return the lost time you've wasted for something else." Now as I am older, I realize everything My grandfather has said. I might come off as a happy person, but deep down inside I am a depressed person. I've gone through a lot in my life, especially in the recent year, and I trust my grand father's advice that time will heal everything and make me feel all right. So as I park at the visitor parking space, I always look at the tower and smile and say thank you to my beloved grand father.

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I don’t have anyone to memorialize, so I figure I should create a symbol of my own in a parallel to William’s cairn. Fittingly since it’s almost my 18th birthday, and you know college and all, I want to memorialize the idea of Childhood (which somewhat relates to William as well). Childhood is a time period that I think most people take for granted, and unfortunately we don’t realize this without hindsight; of course, at that point it’s too late. My main motivation for this memorial is the fact that I’ve noticed that I regret many things from my childhood, and as I look back there are plenty of things I wish I could change. Unfortunately, that is impossible, and the past cannot be changed. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have realized that the important thing about childhood is to make mistakes, because everything is low stakes and often the consequences are less impactful; it’s important to look forward and I suppose not make the same mistakes again.

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This memorial is for Emerenciana Navarro, my grandmother. Not a day goes by where I wish you could see the woman I have turned out to be. I still try to make you proud everyday, and I won’t stop trying.

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My cairn was made for my Aunt Loli and Uncle Stan. They did not pass; however, it feels as though they did. Through them, I learned that in constantly assessing others and their character, you can very easily become jaded in your own character. I now understand the importance of practicing what you preach, as well as to not preach to others because you never know what someone is going through.

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This pile of stones is in memory of my grandmothers who I never met. I hear about them constantly in the vivid memories of my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I long every day to have been lucky enough to have met them both. Great Grandma Mary, the matriarch of our family, the woman that raised five daughters and began so many traditions we follow today. Stories of your memory are almost always brought up at our family gatherings and they always end with laughter and tears. I know you are here with each and everyone of us. I dream of the day when I can finally meet you. Rest well. To my Grandma Jackie, I thank you for raising my mother to be the strongest woman I know. I hear she learned it from you. You left this earth months before my older sister was born and we both dream of the love you would have shown us. I am told you would be proud of my strong will and my skills in the kitchen. I wish I could hug you and tell you I love you. Until we finally meet, rest In peace.

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For my memorial, I have decided to dedicate my memorial to the passengers and flight crew of EgyptAir Flight 990 which crashed off the Atlantic Ocean. 217 people were on that flight and the cause is still unknown after 20 years after the crash. Most of the passengers were American, Egyptian, and Canadian citizens. The flight number, "990" is no longer being used.

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This memorial is dedicated to my godfather who passed away six months ago. His name was Aurelio Vazquez. He was one of the kindest people I have ever known. He suffered for over thirty years due to liver problems. The reason I want to dedicate him this memorial is because he was one of the strongest, funniest and kindness people who always kept a smile and never give up. I will always remember him as a big fighter.

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This memorial is for my grand mother Nagako. She passed away two years ago. Before she was dead, she was in a nursing home for few years, so I couldn’t see her much. But when I saw her, I often brought flowers for her, and I remember there are flowers in her room all the time. She didn’t even know I would leave to the U.S., so I wanted to talk about it with her. I hope she is living in the heaven without any  diseases.

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These stones are placed in memory of the first dog I ever owned. His name was Jake and he was more than just a dog. He was my brother, my best friend, my protector. Jake was found one month before I came into the world and was only a few months older than I was. We grew up together and we were inseparable. He loved the outdoors and was always a free spirit. He would protect me at all costs and would cheer me up when I was feeling down. He was my rock. Jake was there from the start of my life, and will be with me until the end, maybe not in person, but always in spirit, in my heart.

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Antonio Elias Price. From the day I was born he has been one of my closest cousin who felt like a brother. He loved to love on his family, and loved to braid my hair. When his girlfriend found out she was pregnant, he wished for a girl to be able to braid her hair, and he got her. He had the biggest heart, everyone who met him felt his love. His heart was too pure for the world. We unexpectedly lost him at 25 years old. The week leading up to his funeral, all we saw were bright skies and the sun shining down, but it was supposed to be rainy. The sun let me know he finally found his happiness he couldn't find here.

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In memory of my grandpa. He fought in the Vietnam War and he was an outstanding husband, father, and grandpa. I remember we would always visit his house and majority of the time, our favorite show, Popeye, was on. He would make us some snacks and he would come watch it with us. Thank you, Grandpa, for giving us such sweet advice when we weren't in the greatest mood, thank you for making us laugh endlessly, and thank you for being such an amazing grandpa. 

This memorial is dedicated to my grandfather,  Melvin Dorsey. He was born September 25, 1953, in St. Louis, Missouri and had three brothers and two sisters. He attended Soldan High School but did not graduate. He worked in factories and married my grandmother Shirley Jenkins in 1970 at age 17 and lied about his age to marry her. He was truly a family man. He had two kids with his wife. I chose this man because he is truly an inspiration to me and my family. However, I was never able to meet him, as he passed away from a stroke on October 31, 1984, at age 31. He may not be here with us, but his legacy still lives on.

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I have been lucky enough to have never had to experience the death of a close friend or family member. However, I have mourned the death of many animals and that has stayed with me for a long time. In fact, I have never gotten over any of my animals' deaths, going all the way back to when I was a young child.  My rock memorial is dedicated to all my loyal, loving fur babies.

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My memorial is for my aunt who passed away a little over a year ago. I decided to put it in front of the police station because she was kind of wild while she was younger. I also put it closest to the parking lot because she wasn’t one much for school even though she was very smart.

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I did a memorial for my grandma who passed away five years ago. She meant everything to me and more. She helped raise me alongside my mother and I grew up having my grandma by my side all the time. She suffered from heart failure and unfortunately passed away when I was fourteen years old. This memorial goes for her because it shows that she always has a special place in my heart and will never be forgotten. Her traditions, culture, and advice that she passed down to me has helped me become the person I am today. I placed the three rocks we were given in class on top of each other in the grass near some flowers and trees in the night by the parking lot of Palomar College. I decided to do her memorial at night because everything in the night involves more emotions. I like to feel and remember her in a quiet peaceful place. She loved nature and I respect her so much for that, that I put the memorial on the grass.

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I decided to dedicate this memorial to my great grandmother, who lived to see her late eighties. Although I wasn’t really close to my great grandmother, I was able to hear many great things about her such as her being such a caring person for her daughters, sons, grandchildren and others as well. As an immigrant coming from another country, she was such a strong person with being able to overcome many different types of adversities throughout her life. My mom always told me that she meant so much to not only her but everyone that had known her for many reasons. With one of those reasons being how she would look out for many and always be there for someone when they needed someone to talk to. 

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I built this cairn as a memorial for my Aunt Susie. While she lived, she spread love to her entire family, making sure we all knew she would be there for us no matter the circumstance. Never one to discriminate, she took care of members of my family who were not directly related to her and made sure they felt like her family all the same. Her voice could soothe even the rowdiest of children, and her patience taught me how to respond to others appropriately. Her presence through her illness endured. While her body is now at rest, her love remains within me, blessing me with the presence of her memory. Though a small gesture, this cairn is meant to celebrate the everlasting love she cultivated within those who were lucky enough to know her.

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I have dedicated this memorial to my grandfather Eduardo Medina who passed away earlier this year at the age of ninety-eight. The area I chose to set up my cairn contains sand and is surrounded by cactus which reminds me of his home in Arizona. He was a World War 2 veteran, a father to fourteen children, but more importantly he was an amazing grandfather to all twenty-two grandchildren. We always had a special bond; he made sure to share his life stories with me even at a young age. I will cherish the moments we spent reading the newspaper and completing the crossword puzzles that he would cut out and save. He never missed a crossword puzzle, and over time he created his own dictionary. It was our thing to do when I came to visit. My grandfather would make delicious food, his famous and my favorite was his albondigas soup with homemade tortillas. It brings me joy to remember him in the kitchen teaching me how to roll the meatballs and flatten the masa with my hands as his mother showed him. This memorial represents a man who wanted to spread happiness to others and had a heart that was full of love.

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My grandfather (Papa), passed away when I was four after about a year after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He moved in with us and I watched him die in my home. Through all the pain, all the suffering, he never failed to smile and bring light into my family's lives. He is my guardian angel, the person I know in my heart, who looks out for me at all times. Walking by these rocks on my way to class every day will remind me even more of his existence even more than the energy I feel. Through all the good time, and bad, I know he’s there, guiding me with positivity and light, reminding me who I am. I love you Papa, always


This memorial is dedicated to my grandpa, Gene Meader who passed away last year. He left behind a great family along with many great life lessons. He worked his whole life to be able to provide for his family. He was always the happiest and most positive person in any given situation. 

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I am memorializing Coach Hugh Gerhardt, a person who is thankfully still with us. He has made a big impact on my life and is someone that I truly cherish. I met him last year as one of the cross country coaches at Palomar, and also had him as a professor for health. He is a person who is always happy and created less pressure when we had  harder meets. He is also a mentor who gives me advice on how to do things better. An overall great person to be around. This marks the spot of all the great memories with all my teammates but reminds me of a person that has had significant impact in my life.

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My Aunt Sabrina Lange was the funniest, most caring and genuine lady. She continuously impacted the people around her in the most positive way. Her presence was always known when she walked in the room. She was never seen without a smile and had a glow about her that inspired a smile on anyone surrounding her. Sabrina had so much passion to show love and support to her nieces and nephews. She never cared what others thought about her and had continuous motivation to spread kindness and love to all that encompassed her life. She was a fighter and a light in everyone's life and is missed dearly.

This memorial is dedicated to my dog, Buster. He was a friend and family member. Although he was only with us a short time, Buster's loyalty and unconditional love still reside with me. I loved him and miss him to this day. Rest peacefully.