Annelies Gentile created a lakeside memorial that became a depository for the anonymous, often-moving reflections of strangers. She wants to make that happen again – and spread the idea across the state.
Among her favorite memories are savoring the winding trails and densely wooded shoreline at Raleigh’s Lake Johnson with her father. He had struggled with bad health all his life and, in his later years, diabetes had limited his walking. “So I would take him around the lake’s paved trail in a wheelchair,” she says.
When John Gentile died in 2007 at age 73, she came up with a way to memorialize her father and their times at the lake. While struggling with his declining health, Annelies had found a spot along the lakeshore that offered a comforting place to grieve his imminent death.
“I would kind of squat there on the pine straw and cry.”
And that was where she arranged with the City of Raleigh – which had begun allowing citizens to purchase and place memorial benches along its greenways – to install one of the park-style benches. Attached is a metal plate engraved with his name, the dates of his birth and death, and “Daddie-O,” the nickname he’d given himself.
Why a bench? “He liked to sit!” she laughs. “He loved watching nature, he loved water, he loved the sunrise.”
The bench was just the beginning of a project that would bring together the expressions of hope, despair, grief and delight of hundreds of trail users.
The next step came on Christmas Day, 2007 – a little more than a month after Annelies lost her father.
On a trip to Wrightsville Beach, she and her future husband, Greg, were walking at the water’s edge and spotted a small mailbox on a platform. Opening it, she discovered a spiral-bound notebook. She felt she had found a treasure. With the loss of her father weighing heavily, she remembers: “I wrote at least four pages front and back. Lots of things needed to be purged.”
Though a coastal Christmas had become the couple’s yearly ritual, 2009’s brutally cold winter kept them home. That’s when Annelies decided to re-create the magic of the seaside journal at her father’s lakeside bench.
Greg was skeptical, she remembers: “He said: ‘Why do that? No one’s gonna come.’” Her Aunt Connie was even more dubious. “She said, ‘Somebody’s going to steal it. You’re going to feel so bad when somebody steals that book!’”
Annelies was undeterred. She found an old mailbox and spray-painted it red. The next day – New Year’s Day, 2010 – she mounted it on the bench, wrote a message on the first page of a small, hardbound journal, and slipped it into the box. The message noted: “This journal is here as an offering, a sacred space for your thoughts, feelings and prayers.”
Within two weeks, there were a dozen entries, including one a page long. It began: “Dear John Gentile, thank you for being such a meaningful person that your child would want to have this bench and journal put in this beautiful site and let us all be with you in our thoughts…”
“I was blown away,” Annelies recalls, “and they just kept coming.” Once, when she was at the bench, a woman walked up and gestured toward the journal.
“She said: ‘You know, it’s just so interesting. I wonder who did it.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s me.’ And she just looked at me like, ‘for real?’”
The entries are about cherishing the past: “Every time I see a place of beauty such as this bench by still water, I will pause and remember you so that, wherever I am, there you shall be.”
About valuing the present: “My time at the lake has made me…come to the conclusion that you can appreciate life no matter the situation. The days that you let pass without moments of appreciation are wasteful.”
And about planning a future: “My girlfriend is the most wonderful girl you could ever hope to meet. She’s down by the water at the moment not knowing what I’m about to ask her. The ring is in my pocket. Here I go.”
Sometimes the entries reveal extreme pain. One woman wrote: “Three weeks ago, I lost my baby after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Years ago, I lost a newborn baby girl. I feel like there’s no breath left in my body. Everybody in this journal seems to come to the conclusion that life is beautiful. I don’t. I know nobody in this city. I have no family. The weather is gorgeous out, but I don’t know why I would go on.”
Days later came a response: “I have been down in my life, as you seem to be, and I have been glad I chose to go on. You are in my thoughts and prayers.”
Annelies tells about being contacted by the sister of a man who died by suicide at the lake. She told me, “‘I know he wrote in the journal. I want to see his writing.’” In coming across what her brother wrote, the sister found a measure of solace.
She recalls someone who was contemplating suicide telling her that the journals provided comfort: “These books gave her hope,” she recalls softly, “and she’s still here.”
Annelies’ journal project has had farther-flung impact. Once, while in line at a local drugstore, she was talking with a mother and her daughter, home on leave from the Peace Corps in Lesotho. As they talked about fun places to go in Raleigh, she suggested Lake Johnson and mentioned her journal. The daughter grew wide-eyed and asked excitedly if Annelies had recently been on National Public Radio. When she affirmed that she had, the young woman told her that she and other volunteers had heard her story and talked about leaving behind a bench and journal in that African country.
“I cried on the spot,” says Annelies, “and she did, and we all hugged.”
She explains the allure of the journal: “It’s an invitation for imagination to occur. You don’t expect it to be there. You don’t know what you’re going to find – and when you walk away, you’ll be refreshed in a way you couldn’t by a Facebook post.”
Annelies knows firsthand the journal’s power to create a bond among strangers, its ability to share a spectrum of human experience: the pain of the grieving, the strength of the struggling, the good cheer of the hopeful.
She’s had to replace missing journals several times, and she became disheartened when someone removed her Lake Johnson mailbox. Without the journals, she asked herself: Who’s not being heard? Who’s not being given the gift of someone’s words?
Annelies’ belief in the journal’s power feeds her vision for the project’s next chapter. She wants to obtain a public art grant to put journals on greenways across the state.
She had shared the journal’s stories with her Aunt Connie, once a skeptic about the journals. “She told me, ‘This journal has kept my brother, your father, alive. It’s beautiful to be able to share that.’”
A journal entry by another anonymous stranger agrees: “Because of your dad, I will look at each and every person I pass at Lake Johnson differently. We think we are strangers, but we are bound unexplainably to one another. My hope for you is that you have found peace with your grief. Love, like a song, plays on even after the last note is sung.”
To date, the City of Raleigh has installed 95 memorial benches in parks and along its greenways. To inquire about donating a memorial bench, contact Ashley Deans at 919.996.4810.