by Chris LaMay-West
Once we left the main route, the rest of the way was up a winding mountain road of packed orange clay dirt when it was dry, red mud when it had rained. I don’t remember if we went in my grandfather’s pickup truck, but I’m sure we wished we were in something sturdier if we didn’t. I do remember not wanting to take my eyes off of the humid press of green on the sides of the road, in case something wondrous emerged from the jungle. Technically subtropical coniferous forest, since we were in the Ozarks and not the Amazon, but the impression of overwhelming fecundity was the same to a ten-year-old boy raised in the brown hills of California.
There wasn’t a parking lot, just an area to pull over which couldn’t hold more than two or three cars at a time. It didn’t need to. Hardly anyone visited the tiny cemetery, except Grandpa Tom, when he occasionally came to mow the grass. I don’t know who mows it now that he’s buried there. His passing came years later, when I was in Japan for a semester abroad during college. I couldn’t get back for his funeral, in fact haven’t been back at all since those childhood summer vacation visits. But I still remember the first time.
I remember how, on our way to the cemetery that day, we stopped by an old schoolhouse Grandpa Tom had gone to. The sagging roof, splintered holes in the porch, and dusty interior made clear it wasn’t in use anymore. He still tended to the building and so had keys to let us in. Once inside, he pointed out where he’d carved his name in a desk as a boy. Though faded and worn, the hatch marks spelling out “Tom West” were still visible in the wood. This was more impressive to me than any Egyptian antiquity from a museum. I experienced the first intimations I can remember that there was a whole world that had preceded me.
The experience was still on my mind when we arrived at the cemetery. Stately pines made pools of shade on the grassy floor, welcome respite from the heavy summer day. At first, it seemed an innocent and carefree enough place to stretch out on the lawn and read a book while the adults were doing whatever they were doing. Inevitably, though, my attention wandered to the headstones. My legs soon followed.
Some of the markers were new, sporting shiny polished marble with ornate flourishes of design along the edges. Others, of more modest means, were little more than metal signposts or even white wooden crosses in cement bases inside old coffee cans sunk into the ground. Carrol County, Arkansas must have seen better days, because the older graves tended to be the most formal. Even through the darkened patina of water stains and inlaid sheets of lichen, they retained a weight and dignity that the newer burials lacked.
There, among the older burial stones, I began to see Wests.
I’d never seen my last name on a gravestone before. And this was not just casual coincidence: these were the concrete traces of forbearers who had come and gone. My forebears.
I ticked off the birth and death years, calculated the spans in my head. I still do this today when visiting cemeteries. This first time, the math had a special urgency. Born 1863. Died 1939. 76. Did that mean I could expect another 66 years? This seemed an unimaginably long span of time on one hand and a shockingly limited one on the other. If the schoolhouse had made real a world that stretched out before I was here, I now saw, literally written in stone, that a world would stretch out after me when I was gone.
What I remember even more sharply than that realization, though, is this: Here and there, in the untended spaces between the graves, flashes of red grew amidst the green. Squatting down, I saw that they were tiny strawberries. I’d heard (probably read) of wild strawberries, but never seen them before. I experimentally popped one into my mouth and then, delighted, started to gather them.
Those were sweet strawberries.
Pension Mountain Cemetery
Rural Route 507, Berryville, AR 72616
Established: unknown, earliest recorded burials seem to be from 1905
Number of Internments: 142 recorded
Chris LaMay-West believes in the power of rock music, Beat poetry, and the sanctity of Star Trek. He has appeared in Kitchen Sink and Morbid Curiosity, in various online venues including The Rumpus and Opium, and in the Mortified reading series. A California native, Chris currently resides in Vermont, where he writes, works for a college, serves as the poetry editor for Mud Season Review, and lives with his wife, two cats, a dog, and several chickens. His literary exploits can be followed at: http://chrislamaywest.com/
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. 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 — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.