ST. ANTHONY, NL – Every year, Karen Keats brings flowers to the grave of a teenage girl who died nearly 91 years ago.
She does it not only to remember the girl, but to honour the memory of her deceased mother.
Irene Ruth Biles, Keats’ great-great-aunt, died at the age of 16 from tuberculosis (TB) in January of 1927.
It was at a time in Newfoundland’s history when TB was a common cause of death that devastated families and communities across the island.
“It was raging then,” said Keats. “Back in those days, a lot of families were wiped out by TB.”
Irene was the only child in the Biles family to die of the disease. Keats’ grandmother Olive – who Keats affectionately calls mom because she raised Keats – was only one year old at the time of Irene’s death.
In 2012, while she and Keats were visiting the grave of Olive’s parents at the United Church cemetery in Fishing Point, the thought of Irene persisted in Olive’s mind.
“She said, ‘I’d like to find Aunt Irene’s grave, I don’t know where she was ever buried to,’” said Keats. “We decided to go look and try and find her.”
Keats and Olive eventually came to the old United Church cemetery, with graves and headstones from the earliest days of the 1900s. There they found Irene’s headstone with the carved letters “Gone but not forgotten.”
“We found her there and mom was ever so excited,” said Keats.
For those final two years of Olive’s life, she and Keats brought flowers to Irene’s grave. When Olive passed in 2014, Keats carried on the yearly tradition, honouring both her mother Olive and her great-great-aunt, Irene.
While neither of them had the chance to know Irene, Olive, and now Keats, hold on to her memory fondly. As well as a cherished picture of Irene, Keats was also handed down Irene’s teacup and her tiny sewing machine for sewing doll clothes.
Considering the dates of death at the old United Church cemetery, many headstones are in a depleted and crumbling state. The grave of Irene Ruth Biles remains one of the few with fresh flowers left on it. Keats says if Irene’s headstone ever needs to be fixed up, she will make sure the work gets done.
Now nearing a century since she passed away, the young St. Anthony teenage girl Irene Biles can rest assured her grave will remain visited and up kept, so long as Keats is around to remember her.