Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Whispers from the Past

After my folks split up Dad moved to an old stone farmhouse his city-dwelling brother owned. Dad was more or less to be the caretaker of the buildings and property. It was one of the original farmhouses in that area, nestled in a snug valley like a pendant in an ample bosom. Up on one of the hills in the pasture was the family burial ground. There was a low, crumbling stone wall with chestnut trees at the 4 corners. Inside were the limestone grave markers going back as early as Colonial days. Several were in German. Many were worn beyond readability. Many times during visits with Dad I'd hike up the hill to sit in the shade of the trees or look at the old stones as I wondered about the people who rested there. It was my thinking place, my dreaming place, my listening place. I will admit to having a very overactive imagination as a young kid so as Halloween approached my visits became less frequent. I was afraid perhaps the dead might rise and carry me back to darkness with them. Once the dangerous date had passed though I'd resume my trips to the quiet place to imagine the lives of the people resting there.

When I was a little older my grandfather took my brother and me on a field trip of sorts. It was an unusual thing for him to have us by himself and I can't recall the circumstances leading to that arrangement but I do remember the day. He said he wanted to take us to a couple of cemeteries to meet some relatives. My brother and I must have looked a little shocked because Pop-pop asked us if it was going to give us bad dreams. He was well aware of my overactive imagination and how hard it sometimes was for me to shut it off at night. I told him I'd be fine. I understood this was an important day. We spent the afternoon going from graveyard to graveyard. Pop-pop never had to look very hard to find the headstones he wanted. I think he visited often. At each one we'd pause in a few moments of silence before the stories began. Pop-pop would tell us who each person was, how they were related. He'd tell us a bit about the person's character and then give the most memorable stories from their lives. I knew it was a solemn day of acquainting us with his side of the family who we could only know in this way. It wouldn't be until years later that I appreciated the depth of those moments. I have wished many times I had been able to make that trip with him again as a grown person. So yes, I've had a bit of a thing for old cemeteries for a long time.

My trip to Boston motivated me to finally get myself to one of the original cemeteries in my own town. The old Moravian cemetery is the resting place of the town founders. I've been meaning to pay them a visit for a long time but just never had since they are not located in an area of town that is a place where one usually parks and walks around. It's a thoroughfare where busy cars speed past. Friday night I stopped.

The first thing I noticed was the way the tree by the gate beckons you inside if you walk past rather than speed by in a car.

One of the first headstones I found was Susana's with a poetic epitaph at the bottom. I can't read the first line but the last 3 read,
"She was our joy and pride.
We loved her ah perhaps too well.
For soon she slept and died."

Nearby was this headstone. Certainly such sadness was more common a couple hundred years ago but it's never the natural order of things for a parent to outlive a child. I said a prayer for those folks I know personally who have endured this pain.

Here we have John Brown who apparently lived to a ripe old age. 1746-1827. This was the stone with the earliest dates that I found or was able to read. I took note that the flag holder marks him as a Revolutionary War veteran.

Several of the stones seemed to have this flower carving on them. This was the one which still had the clearest image. So many were terribly eroded.

This was the most ornate headstone I saw. I wondered if Mary was a woman of refined tastes or just so beloved that her family wanted her marker adorned like this.

I strolled among so many more stones which were too worn to read. Some were large, others very small. Some were broken. As you see with Mary's, some were quite ornate. There was also a section of very rough cut stone. I was intrigued by how simple and small they were. H.A. Lee's was less than a foot tall.

Finally, as the sun set, I left the graveyard. I thanked the occupants for providing me a quiet place to think. I thought perhaps I heard a whispered a thank you for the visit. The trees standing guard waved me on my way.


Cocotte said...

Hauntingly beautiful trees and markers, Lime.

G-Man said...

Pretty Spooky....But interesting.

jinksy said...

My kids and I used to walk through an old graveyard to get to the field by the shore where we flew kites, and we always stopped to say 'hello' to one Emily Greenleaf, simply because we loved the name!

Jazz said...

What a beautiful post. I love old cemeteries too.

for a different kind of girl said...

I used to spend a lot of time in cemeteries back when I was editing a newspaper and I was following a man who used to train people how to restore old gravestones. Loved the history and the beauty that we'd discover.

Desmond Jones said...

Thank you for this, Lime. . .

Several years ago, Molly and I and my parents went on a vacation together to upstate New York, specifically for the purpose of visiting some of the old cemeteries that held our ancestors.

(Think of what it was like to sell that trip to Molly - "Hey, what would you think about going to New York this summer? We can look thru cemeteries! And my folks want to come with us!")

I was a bit dumbstruck at how very OLD things are 'back east'. Here in Michigan, it is VERY rare to find a gravestone with even a birth date from the 1700s; out there, they're pretty common. . .

And I remember walking thru a cemetery, somewhere between Albany and the Mass state line, that looked a whole lot like the one you show us here. . .

NYD said...

Whether your name be writ on water or on stone, time; with it's inexhaustable patience, renders it equally silent.

Jeni said...

About 3 or 4 years ago, I did a transcription of the cemetery here that is affiliated with our church. I think the oldest graves there are from the very late 1890s. But walking through there, writing down the details from the headstones and so many of these people being relatives and friends or often too, people I had known or knew about, it gives such a connection then.
There is another cemetery about 5 miles from here for the Catholic Church and that one has graves dating back to just prior to the Civil War. That church though is also the oldest church or the second oldest church (and subsequently graveyard) in our township. This area is actually quite new to "civilization" per se (only dating back to 1850 in the township and to the very early 1800's in the county, compared to the area where you live. You're in a much more historic area of the state down there!

lime said...

cocotte, thanks

gman, i found it peaceful

jinksy, i like that story. say hello to emily for me next time ;)

jazz, glad yo uenjoyed

fadkog, there is beauty there, plus it's good to be reminded of one's mortality

desmond, lol, that does not sound like a vacation package that would have a lot of takers. interesting to note the relative oldness of our back east things.

nydd, what a wonderful quote. who said it first?

jeni, what a wonderful service you provided to people who may be doing genealogies

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love old graveyards, even if the child headstones make me sad.

Craver Vii said...

NYD's quote was intriguing. It is good for us to remember that as we establish our priorities. The best a regular person can hope for is what we invest for the next generation, whether it be organizational standards or ethics for our own children.

Nowadays I love strolling through cemeteries. The markers and statues would make good subjects for charcoal sketching. I hear what you're saying about the imagination though. I used to be a wide-eyed, high-strung Barney Fife, when walking near the deceased.

Suldog said...

Now I know where MY WIFE and I can bring you for a visit when you next come to Boston! Either Mount Auburn Cemetery or Forest Hills Cemetery. Both have much stunning ornamentation and resting places of interesting people.

(ALL people are interesting, but you know what I mean.)

Anonymous said...

I get freaked out around cemeteries, although I know it's a place that's cool. Active imagination indeed! :) But how cool that your grandpop took you to introduce you to his family. That's very cool!

Mona said...

That is a very interesting post about the long gone. The pictures of the grave stones are intriguing!

I remember in my childhood,people used to say " so & so beacme dear to God" meaning, they died. I somehow got this crazy idea that when there is lightening amongst the clouds, it is God taking pictures of mortal beings, so that he may decide who to 'make dear' to himself. So when ever there was lightening in the skies I used to make horrible faces and stick out my tongue at the skies , so that God would not find me attractive enough to make me dear to him!

lecram said...

ahh... headstones... bliss. lol. Great post too!

lime said...

citizen, they do have a lot of personality

craver, excellent point and i quite agree. though i am laughing at the image of you doing a barney fife face!

suldog, sounds very cool!

mssolitaire, i know it's not everyone's cup of tea

mona, oh that is an absolutely priceless story! i can just see you making the awful faces! too funny

lecram, i thought you'd enjoy :)

The Zombieslayer said...

What a beautiful post. Out here, you don't see too many old cemeteries. California's a very young state compared to back East.

Certainly such sadness was more common a couple hundred years ago but it's never the natural order of things for a parent to outlive a child.

Yup. I tell Junior all the time that he better stay healthy because I'll be pissed off if I outlive him. Probably not the best thing to say to your son, but I think he's used to the way I talk by now.

As for the pictures, very sad how worn the stones are. Can barely read most of them. Lovely tree shot at the end.

As for Pop-pop, that's great of him to do that for you. I wish my Grandparents did that, but us dang Zombieslayers move too much. We don't have roots anywhere.

Hilary said...

Beautiful, Lime. A few years back, when I was spending a fair bit of time in northern Massachusetts, I wandered around a large cemetery with many ornate and many more simple graves. Two very small stones caught my eye. "Lost at sea" It was a father and son. I saw the familiar date and noted the names, looked them up online and found them to be passengers on the Titanic. There was nothing outstanding about the graves and we could have easily missed them. I find cemeteries fascinating. Thanks very much for sharing this.

Jocelyn said...

I love going for runs in cemeteries. The time flies by, as I get entranced with people's stories there.

Kind of like life.

Beach Bum said...

My grandfather told us kids stories about members of the family that had passed away through old pictures. I wish I had been able to record the stories or just make simple notes on all those people.

As for the pictures, that first one was great and chilling. It did beckon me wishing I see what was inside.

As for the marker for John Brown, that one fascinated me beyond the others. The country has changed in so many ways since the Revolution but here is someone that saw the country when the most of the continent was still Terra incognita and the infant United States could have developed so many other ways.

Cheesy said...

There is a pioneer cemetery across the valley from here that I love to hike up to... maybe I will have to revisit this spring!

Ella said...

i went to savannah, ga for new years a few years ago and one thing we did during the day was exploring the old cemetary. it was amazing to stroll through and read them, noticing what looked like entire famiies that died in the span of a few months (diseases, flu's, etc. wiping them all out).

jillie said...

What a great story and to walk through the cemetery looking at all of the headstones. I do that on occasion when I go to WI and visit my dad. Some of them are so elaborate while one right next to it may be just as simple as can be.

lime said...

zs, and then there's my family who considers me an anomaly because i moved 90 miles away from them

hilary, oh my, that's quite a story isn't it?

jocelyn, exactly, so much fodder for imagination

beach bum, i had similar thoughts about john brown

cheesy, oh that sounds interesting!

ella, in my home town there is a very large section with stones all having the same death date because of a large opera house fire

jillie, the variety is interesting and rich or poor death makes us all equal

Moosekahl said...

I have a set of similar pictures from some of the cemeteries I found in Portsmouth, VA a few years ago. I could have spent many hours in that quiet, safe place. Thanks for sharing your reflections with us.

Maddy said...

I have nothing better to add than what has already been said. Thank you.