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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Life and death amid the graves
The caretaker of the Dade City Cemetery spends her days thinking about what's really important.
By HELEN ANNE TRAVIS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 3, 2007
Mariarose Kussler scrubs the mildew off the graves of soldiers and babies, even though that's not part of her job description. As the caretaker of the Dade City Cemetery, Kussler is paid to mow, weed and trim back the long oak limbs that spill Spanish moss onto the graves of the city's founders. But she also scrubs.
She feels veterans and children deserve clean headstones.
She feels a lot during her 40 hours alone each week in the cemetery.
There's sadness at the fresh grave of a young person, peace when an elderly individual is done suffering, pride when weeds no longer cover a headstone.
There's hope that if she takes care of the dead, she will be forgiven.
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She grew up in Port Jefferson, N.Y., and visited her grandparents in San Antonio every summer. She thought San Antonio was so remote she wondered how her grandparents had ever found it.
Forty years later and her grandmother was on the phone, saying she was old, her husband and friends were dead, and she needed help. Kussler had moved to Florida by then. She, her husband and their two children moved to Tampa from South Florida to be closer to Grandma.
Kussler, 46, had worked as a nurse's aide in South Florida, but the pay wasn't as good here. She got a job with the Dade City Police Department, working the dispatch lines.
But then there was the divorce. Kussler, suddenly single, needed less erratic work hours so that she could care for her children. She maintained flower beds downtown for a few years with the city's Public Works Department. In 2005, she was made caretaker of the cemetery.
"Look at this," she said earlier this week as she stood in the cemetery. Clouds made patterns on the grass. American flags and plastic flowers sparkled in the sunlight.
Her face is tanned. She's lost weight with all the work. Her arms are strong.
She had a lot to learn when she started working in the cemetery. As a nurse's assistant, you're not taught how to maneuver a riding mower. There are no technical courses on how far to poke a rod into the ground to find out whether there is a coffin underneath.
She has begun visiting other cemeteries to learn their caretakers' secrets. She and her boyfriend rode their motorcycles to Bushnell so that she could poke around and find out whether the veterans cemetery there uses Round-Up or pulls the weeds by hand.
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She didn't do anything most people would consider wrong.
But her parents raised her as a Catholic and she got divorced, so now she says she's excommunicated from the church. On Sundays, she feels she can't attend Mass like she used to.
She's not sure how that's going to add up when her time comes. Talking about it chokes her up. She worries that people will think she's a nut because these things run through her mind as she scrubs the graves.
But she says it's like penance to care for the dead, to whack weeds around their headstones and to keep their resting spots beautiful for their families' visits.
Every day, she looks at the stone and marble markers and thinks about life and time and death. It's all so short, people should be more kind - on and on it goes in her mind.
But she says she loses her perspective when she leaves the cemetery. On her drive to her Tampa home, she thinks about bills, dinner, everyday stuff.
She forgets the lessons of death, she said, in the details of living.