Tag Archives: children in graveyards

Death’s Garden: Cemetery Strawberries

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo of Pension Mountain Cemetery in Arkansas by Chris LaMay-West.

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.

PMC2The 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.

PMC3

Photo of the author’s grandfather’s headstone, courtesy of Chris LaMay-West.

***

Pension Mountain Cemetery
Rural Route 507, Berryville, AR 72616
Established: unknown, earliest recorded burials seem to be from 1905
Number of Internments: 142 recorded

headshot***

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/

***

Death's Garden001About 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.

 

Death’s Garden: The Dead Dreaming

helena-confederate-cemetery[1]

Maple Hill’s gate, photographed by Billie Sue Mosiman.

by Billie Sue Mosiman

We lived in Helena, Arkansas and I was thirteen. In the summer, I’d make a sack lunch, take a book, hop on my bike, and ride off across the hills and ravines to the Civil War cemetery that draped across a hill. The old tombstones rose step by step up into thick woods. It was a well-kept place, with the pathways smooth dirt. The grassy areas where the graves resided were the green of emerald deep water.

Black cast-iron gates opened at the bottom of the hill and I would push my bike, lunch sack in the basket, up the path. I’d turn off into the smaller paths leading between the graves. I relished the pure peace emanating from this place. I’d been taught in school about the Civil War and here lay many of that war’s dead. Yet it wasn’t a sad place. I felt no unhappy spirits lingering. It felt more like a lovely park for imaginative children than a haunted arena of long-lost souls.

Later I discovered there had been a tremendous battle in Helena, with the Union in massive warships coming in their determined way down the Mississippi River to raid and conquer and the Confederates defending the city. Hundreds of tombstones lay on this long hill, testifying to the outcome.

I’d put aside my bike and walk slowly, softly, among the tombstones, curiously reading the names and dates of death. No one ever seemed to visit this historical cemetery. I was always alone and preferred it that way. I never felt threatened, worried, or afraid some male stranger might come by to whisk me into oblivion. It never crossed my mind, the way it would today.

I found peace in this ancient cemetery. I contemplated the battle these soldiers had fought, the pure bravery, misery, and insanity of it all. I’d run my hand over the rough, pitted stone of the angels and statues. After visiting with the dead, I’d return to my bike and get the book and the lunch. I’d find a shaded spot on the amazing grass and lean my back against a tombstone. Hours would pass as the sun skimmed over the surrounding forest: the tombstone shadows leaning, upright, then leaning again down toward twilight.

c1095b2e5866f239f0ef49a84c3c07f0[1]I went to this cemetery day after day, many times throughout that summer. No one came to intrude. I was not lonely or sad or afraid. It was peace I sought and peace I found. Birds sang and that’s all. No person traversed this place.

Through the summer, I began to feel it was my special, secret place, the only place I could find quiet and harmony. Every noon I’d eat my meager lunch: baloney sandwich and sometimes an apple or banana. I’d grow sleepy and doze a bit sitting up.

One day, a friend who lived down the street asked me where I went every day on my bike. “You don’t come back until almost dark,” she said.

I told her I’d take her there, my place, and show her. The next morning, we both rode off on our bikes. When I turned into the black gates with the toothy stones sticking up row after row on the hillside, my friend stopped abruptly at the gate. “This is a cemetery,” she said.

I told her I knew that, come on in, it wasn’t scary at all. She came slowly, following behind me. I showed her the marvelous pathways, the soft grass, the names and sayings and dates on the markers. None of the tombstones leaned. It was all as pristine and perfect as cookies laid out on a slanting platter.

“But what do you do here? It’s so empty.”

No, it was filled, I told her, absolutely crammed with people, but they were silent now and left me alone.

Her eyebrows rose. I knew then, if not before, that I might be an eccentric child. Today thirteen-year-old girls wear makeup and short tops and dance to music I don’t understand. In my thirteenth year, I was a child, a real child, a little girl. Yes, I was on the cusp of becoming woman, but not yet.

We nibbled on our lunches while I went on about how marvelous this place was. How silent and peaceful. How welcoming. I urged my friend to listen to the birdsong. I pointed to where the shadows grew and withdrew. I told her to listen, just listen, and wasn’t it the best silence she’d ever heard? No adults talking, no car horns, no radio music. It was pure here and clean and peace lay over it all. When here, I walked carefully not to step on a grave. I tried not to rustle my paper sack too loudly or scrape the rocks on the path with my bike tires. If there was serenity anywhere in Helena, Arkansas, it was here and only here and I’d luckily discovered it, my secret hideout.

We left early and I don’t remember that girl being much of a friend anymore. I understand the reasoning for that now, but it was a little hurtful at thirteen. What had I done so wrong? Was it weird to like to spend time reading and dozing in a cemetery with the war dead?

I wasn’t going to change or pretend I was not interested and happy in the Civil War cemetery. I still rose early, slipped out of the house with my lunch sack and book, and ran off on my bike every day I could.

It’s possible that’s the place where I learned to concentrate. I learned so well that when grown and working as a novelist, I could hold a thought in my head, leave it to get my children water or food, come back and pick up with the very next word in the middle of a sentence.

It’s the place that taught me not to fear the dead and their brethren. After so many years, they’d departed those grassy graves or they lay quietly waiting. They had no truck with the living world, having done their best and moved on.

Odd places like cemeteries can be a place of not just solitude, but of learning, and of acceptance of one’s own strangeness. We will all go there, those who desire burial, into the earth. Having spent a summer in a graveyard was an adventure, a revelation, and one of the best summers I remember.

I don’t know how the cemetery fares today, but being a national one, I expect it to be the same: Gray stones rising up and up and up until the woods halt the advance. Acres of the dead reminding us of what civil strife can cause, of what we can head toward if we begin to hate one another because of race or discontent. Once we load the musket, bring it to the shoulder to aim, and let loose Death against another man, woman, or child, then we at least might meet the dark grave and grow at last cold and silent.  It’s even possible a little girl walks the paths above us, reading her books and dreaming easily of days past and future.

This essay was originally published on The Peculiar Writer blog.

***

Billie Sue Mosiman was born in Alabama and lives now in Texas on a small ranch. Author of more than 60 books on Amazon, Mosiman is a thriller, suspense, and horror novelist, a short fiction writer, and a lover of words. Her books have been published since 1984 and two of them received an Edgar Award Nomination for best novel and a Bram Stoker Award Nomination for most superior novel. She’s the editor of Fright Mare: Women Write Horror, to be published in February 2016. Please check out her books on Amazon.

***

Death's Garden001About 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.