by Jo Nell Huff
“Cemetery! Cross your fingers!”
The admonition floats to the surface of my consciousness like the command of an angel as I see the cemetery ahead on the left. The child within me obediently crosses the middle finger over the index finger of both hands. I continue to drive my car along the freeway at 70 miles per hour.
When I traveled with my family as a child, the females in the car crossed their fingers while passing a cemetery. Father did not participate. Either an older sister or my mother would warn of an approaching cemetery and we would all cross our fingers. I confess that I still do it after these years, even though I know it is foolish. While driving alone, I can boldly cross them without fear of derision. When traveling with fellow passengers who do not know of this ritual, I usually casually fold one hand in my lap or drape one arm over the car seat as I cross my fingers. Today, since I’m alone, I can cross boldly.
The purpose of this ceremony? It was one of many beliefs my mother acquired from her childhood in East Texas, where superstitions were as natural as going to the cellar to escape tornadoes whenever unusually dark and heavy clouds appeared with the slightest suspicion of wind. She was determined to pass this fertile legacy on to her daughters, even though we were born and reared in South Texas, where rain was always welcome, even if accompanied by tornado or hurricane, and where superstitions were not so abundant.
Was it to keep death away, since one was passing so close to it? Or was it bad luck not to cross your fingers when passing a cemetery, just as it was bad luck for a black cat to cross your path? Mother never fully explained the origin or reason and we never questioned her command. I feared failure to cross my fingers might cause me to be struck dead on the spot or even damned to Hell forever. Something bad was sure to happen…maybe I would even cause the death of someone in the family. As I got older — somewhere around my teenage years — I simply did it out of habit and to placate my mother. Now it is a reminder to say a short prayer for the safety of my loved ones. Mother would surely have approved of my blend of Christianity and heathen superstition, if she was still alive.
Protocol applied to the procedure. For example: entering a place of interment for a burial service or to visit the grave of a loved one, friend, acquaintance, or any famous person did not require crossed fingers. If you lived close to a cemetery that you passed on a daily basis, you were exempt.
It would be wrong to assume that my mother feared or shunned the resting places of the dead. For her, the cemetery was a place to visit and remember the past. When we went to East Texas to visit relatives, it always included visiting the cemetery.
Uncle Houston lived next to a cemetery, where he worked as the caretaker. He and Aunt Mable lived in a small house at the top of a red clay hill next to Pleasant Hill Cemetery. The house had electricity but no indoor plumbing. Water was drawn from a well in the backyard and heated on the gas stove in the kitchen. Leafy tobacco sometimes grew beside the well.
Straight from the well, the water was cool and sweet. A bucket with a dipper sat on the back porch next to the kitchen door, ready to quench one’s thirst or fill the washbasin for cleaning up before going into the house. The kitchen usually smelled faintly of sausage, eggs, and biscuits. The linoleum floors were perpetually dusted with a fine coating of red sandy dust, which Aunt Mable fought daily with her well-worn broom.
Putting on his oversized hat, loosely fitting khakis, and long-sleeved denim shirt, Uncle Houston would leave the house before it got hot and head off for his place of work with his trusty hoe. In the cemetery, he fought the plague of nut grass as if it were the devil himself transformed and risen from Hell. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the melodic clang! of the lightly swung hoe as it hit a small rock or coping — the cement closure around a family plot or a single grave — and echoed through the pines and sunshine.
By mid-morning I could find him deep within the domain of the silent and eternal sleepers. The golden sun would be out. Pleasant Hill Cemetery was a place not of decaying death, but of exploration and adventure. The setting was quiet except for the sound of an occasional car or truck passing on the two-lane highway that connected the small East Texas towns of Henderson, Kilgore, Troup, Arp, Laird Hill. The smell of pine needles and resin filled the summer day. Running through the huge cemetery, I would look for his straw hat and listen for the sound of his hoe. The newer tombstones were of less interest to me, so I always hoped he would be working in the older sections, around the ones with real character and history and visions of people who lived and died in another century.
My grandfather, Joe Cooper, and several generations of Coopers, were buried there — Cornelius, born May 7, 1801/died September 21, 1886 and Rutha, born September 21, 1804/died June 29, 1890, his grandparents; Samuel H. and Mary Jane, his parents. The oldest graves were outlined with bricks and marked by headstones whose letters were bleached by the sun and worn so smooth by wind and rain that reading them was difficult. I was sure there was nothing left of my family members but porous bones, faded cloth, and maybe a bit of metal from a belt or button, but my imagination conjured up visions of how they might have looked and lived and loved. Years later, I did see a picture of Cornelius and Rutha, a stern and sturdy couple, which did not exactly coincide with my romantic interpretations of my ancestors. My grandmother, who died four months before I was born, was buried in the cemetery also. She saved my grandfather a space on her right. To her left was room for two more: Uncle Houston and Aunt Mable, possibly. They took special care of this family plot which might someday be their final home.
Uncle Houston loved to tell me something about each plot he worked on. He took pride in his work and diligently kept the nut grass at bay. He did sometimes use a mower for the grassy walkways between the graves, but around the headstones, the hoe was the only way to keep it neat.
Many headstones had small oval black-and-white photos of young children and teenagers, set lovingly in dark gray granite. Some were victims of the New London school disaster that occurred on March 18, 1937. Gas accumulated beneath the building ignited by a spark when someone turned on a sanding machine. The explosion killed 294 students and teachers in the building. Investigators concluded that, to save money, the school board and superintendent had approved tapping into a residue gas line containing “green gas,” which has no smell and could not be detected as it seeped beneath the building. Uncle Lamar and Aunt Ora King lost their only daughter, Mary Lois, in the blast. She had begged her mother to let her stay home from school that day to go shopping. Aunt Ora advanced to an old woman almost overnight. She never ventured out very much after that and spent most of her time in her rocking chair.
Others in the cemetery died of more common causes: pneumonia, diphtheria, childbirth, broken necks, car accidents, old age, drowning, and passion. One tombstone, etched with a bouquet of roses, marked the remains of a young wife shot to death by her husband, who caught her down by a creek in the very act of sin with another man. Her lover was wisely and discreetly laid to rest in the next county. The husband, acquitted, lived to be an old man and was buried in another part of the cemetery with his wealthy ancestors. A tall monument resembling an obelisk marked his site; he apparently never remarried and slept alone next to his loyal kin.
Some small plots contained the remains of an unnamed child born too soon and departed before the family could even give it a name other than “Infant Son of…” or “Infant Daughter of…” One featured a resting lamb atop a tiny headstone and read, “Beloved child of Will and Beulah Jones /Sleep with the Angels.” Another revealed how very short her time on earth had been, “Sara Ellen Thompson/Born April 20, 1891/Died December 14, 1891.”
Those left behind today seem to have less inclination and time to spend with their loved ones and friends once the burial service is over. They seldom visit their resting places to say hello, seek advice, share good fortune, lament a bit of bad luck, introduce the latest grandchild, or bring fresh flowers.
With no Uncle Houston to tend my grave, I choose not to slumber eternally in one of those practical generic perpetual care cemeteries that are maintained impersonally by teams of workers riding John Deere mowers and listening to country-and-western music on their headphones. The cemeteries may be well kept, but they are as dull as a recycled eulogy or taped songs at a funeral. They simply lack character and drama. Who would want to visit such a place anyway? What if no one ever came to visit me there? Despite my maternal attempts to educate my children about the rewards and duties of visiting the cemetery, I maintain meager hope of regular visits from either of them after I am gone. With no regrets, consolations, or excuses, my husband cites statistics regarding wives living longer than their husbands and is thus exempt from such final duties. So…cremate my used-up earthly representation and scatter the remains over the sea with love, joy, and remembrance.
Until then, I will cross my fingers when passing a cemetery!
Jo Nell Huff retired from the administrative side of healthcare after working for United Healthcare, Prudential, Aetna, and other healthcare related organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi (formally Corpus Christi State University). Briefly she wrote for a small local newspaper. As an outlet for her writing she started a blog, www.coastalcrone.com, in 2011 and writes about tales, trails, and connections to almost anything. She lives on the Gulf Coast of Texas with her husband.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.) If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.