In honor of Memorial Day I chose to share my peaceful place.
The cemetery itself is actually rather small. It really doesn’t take up that much physical space, yet there’s so much in it; the open pavilion over in the back right corner nearest the railroad tracks and the beautiful brick monument dedicated to the Confederate soldiers who gave their lives in the bloody War Between the States. So many gorgeous stones aged to the point you almost can’t read them anymore and juxtaposed with newer ones cut by machines with laser precision. The big iron arch over the gates seems almost out of place now that there’s a little business park on one side and the motorcycle shop on the other.
Before it was the Harley Davidson store the large building on the right of the cemetery property was Southern States. I used to love going in there with Grandaddy to check out everything they offered, I had a real interest in the horse troughs. Not because they were horse troughs, horses did do and still frighten me just a little bit; but the troughs were so pretty all shiny and clean, I remember thinking of all the things I could use the smaller ones for…a bath for my baby dolls, a place to keep books that was way more fun than the little bookshelf I had in my room…I have since seen them used as coolers at parties, full of ice and countless beverages. I’ve actually seen them used as was meant to water animals on a farm. I still think as a baby bath would have been the best fun.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly time goes by and things change. I have been going there truly as long as I can remember, when I was a little girl Mommie took us there frequently.
My mother’s mother died before I was born and even though there were others from her family in this place, it was my unknown grandmother we went to visit with. I didn’t understand why, but I absolutely loved being there. I loved that the train tracks bordered the back of the cemetery. I used to roam them, up and down…all the way to the old Manassas Station, I learned to time it just so that when I could hear the whistle at the bridge, I knew exactly how long I had to get to a safe place off the tracks in time to wave to the engineer. In those days they smiled more than they seem to now. I have combed those tracks for spikes since I can remember, flattened many a penny, and loved the way the ground moved under my feet when the big box cars would rattle by. I always wondered how it affected the folks buried there. Did the rumbling of the trains disturb their sleep? Or was it a comfort to them somehow?
My brother and I used to play elaborate games there among the headstones. I’m sad to realize I don’t remember many of them; I just remember hiding behind huge granite and marble grave markers, sneaking silently behind the flowering shrubs waiting to catch him unawares. I especially remember three graves that were raised up with huge flat toppers, we would lie and sun ourselves on these warm stones. We would climb and jump and imagine up all kinds of fun and exciting things to do and even though we played with such reckless abandon, we were always respectful of those who had been laid to rest there.
Those memories were from back in the days of the grounds being beautifully well maintained. There was a long while when it became so shabby and unkempt. It saddened me to my very soul to see that beautiful place with dead flowers left in vases and long dry grass going to seed; it seemed so much less a place of peace and more the staged set for a macabre film production.
When I was twenty-one and newly married my beloved Grandaddy died, and at the time it was the worst event I’d ever had to live through, and I stood there that day in the very place I had played as a child and put his body in the ground. I stood clinging to my little (though enormously bigger than me) brother and wept as the military pallbearers removed the coffin from the car and carried it around. In that moment the realization hit me and I thought, ‘oh God, my Grandaddy is in that box! I’m never going to see him again! Never hear his voice, or kiss his forehead or touch his soft wrinkled hand!’ followed by the word ‘NO!’ over and over in my head as though on a playback loop. My brother was so brave to hold me while I cried, I feel as though he cried too but I just don’t remember. I sat mute and horrified as they handed the triangle flag to my mother. I know I screamed when the guns went.
How would this place ever be peaceful again? Could I ever again love that beautiful green grass, those myriad tombstones, the rumble of the train? Would the serenity I knew in this most hallowed place be lost to me forever?
It took me a while to suss out if I would be comfortable going back there. It seemed there were two camps in my brain, the anxious one that wanted be in that cemetery and never leave simply so I could stay close to him, and the mindful camp that let the grieving process move along a bit before it made any decisions.
When I did finally go I took white daisies, not because he liked them but because I do. The death date had been carved by then and the stone reset, this actually comforted me, to read the words and wrap my brain around them. Because the earth there is nothing more than shale and red clay, the gravesite was still the tiniest little mound when I sat there in the warm summer sun for an unusually long time.
Did I feel at peace? Was I going to be able to come here when I needed to feel that way? I didn’t cry that first visit and I found I did indeed feel tranquil. As time went on just driving through the gates would do it, as though bathed in warm solace simply entering the space.
Both times I found myself with a baby in my belly I went there to sit in the sun. To bless them? To bless me? To share with him what he was missing? I don’t know why, but I do know how “right” it felt; and when those little babies were born I took them there. Maybe they would grow up playing among the gravestones the same way I did. Of course like me at that age, they would have no real draw to the place because they had not known the person buried there. But would they feel the peace I felt? Would they know how meaningful it was to me they came and played?
When Thing 2 was just two and Thing 1 away on an adventure with her Auntie, we went out one afternoon. I have pictures of her watering the flowers we took with us and standing on my great-grandmother’s high granite headstone holding her Daddy’s hand for balance. She toddled about that day full of light and life and joy, a seeming oddity in the place of the dead. She walked to the little angel statuary my mother put there for her own mother, and she bent her chubby face to the angel’s face smiled and said, “hi baby.”
As they got older, the girls were less inclined to go with me, Thing 1 declared it creepy and refused to go, Thing 2 was always willing, but tended to want to do what her sister did. So I went back to going alone.
Occasionally, we would all go and they would wander off with their Daddy as I would sit cross-legged in the grass, my hand resting on the warm granite headstone. They would explore the train tracks, or wander through the stones reading names and asking questions. Perhaps it was peaceful for them after all.
Both my daughters have family names. Thing 1 is named with both my and her father’s middle names, names we were given from family members. Thing 2 has her own original first name and shares a middle name with my Grandaddy. I love seeing the names of my babies on that headstone each time I’m there. This may sound morbid, but to me it is simply one more extremely important and comforting connection to my first family.
As an adult I have sat quietly on that grass more times than I can count, for me it’s no longer an adventure or play place. It’s a place to be still, to reflect and rejoice, to rejuvenate.
Sometimes I sit and talk and talk and talk, saying all the things I think are meaningful to me that he’s missed out on. Other times I sit as silent as the graves that surround me. I have cried until I’ve no more tears and have laughed at my joys. I feel truly blessed every time I’m able to be there.
I moved far far away from that little cemetery and found it terribly difficult to come to grips with that on the days I needed that little bit of peace or comfort. I know that feeling is always inside me, I just seem to experience it best when I’m there. I mostly long to be there when I feel overwhelmed or unsettled, knowing it will help me put it all into perspective, or simply make me feel better for a little while.
Interestingly enough, YBW lives very very close to this my scared place, and I have been able to go more in the last three years. The first time I took him, he was so sweet to sit quietly with me and hold my hand. His patience is profound. Golly, I love him.
When Mommie died, I knew the arrangements she and my step-father had made, I agreed to them years ago when she talked with me about what they wanted…of course, I always assumed he would die first and it wouldn’t really matter. That’s what I get for assuming. And though I knew what they decided, I felt unsettled. I felt rather strongly that she needed to be there with her parents and beloved aunts and uncle. Alas, it wasn’t my decision. But I did make a choice. I thought about it for a good long while…I talked with YBW about it, also the Things daddy and decided to take a bit of her ashes that I have and leave them there.
On the first anniversary of her death Thing 2, YBW and I went to the cemetery and left a bit of her there where I believed so strongly she belonged.
And there was peace again.