Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Last Road Trip

My mother was really big into genealogy. I start to understand now that I have turned 40. Modern science tells us that we may now live as long as 120 years old but I feel that I have reach the “middle mark” of my life. I reach out for connections to the past as I search of a sense of heritage, of who I am and from where I came and by doing so I somehow reach into the future. It is a basic urge of humans to want to make a mark on this world, to leave a heritage, to know that we exist and know that we were. I like Buddhist koans. There is a koan that goes: “What was the state of your face before your ancestors were born?” How am I to answer that?

My mother was really big into road trips. We would pack up in the car and visit cemeteries. I think that this is a particularly “southern” thing to do, however I know of several “Yankee” families that do it as well. Many of my relatives are buried in perpetual care cemeteries, but most are not. On Decoration Day (or Confederate Memorial Day) we would take rakes and plastic bags and clean up the graves of Mama’s grandparents in Marietta. In the last few years, we fell out of the habit of doing this, and now I don’t think that I could find most of these cemeteries.

Recently, when L was a baby and K a toddler, my mother and I took the girls and her cousin Norma on what was to be our last road trip. We took back roads and twisty country lanes and ended up at a cemetery that had fallen into almost complete disrepair. Norma and my little family were the last descendents of this branch. In fact, neither my mother nor I am directly related -- it is a collateral line. Norma was the absolute last descendent. She did not have children that I know of and since she died two years ago, I am certain I will never find this graveyard again. There were 50 or so graves on the “white” side and hundreds on the “slave” side. It was the graveyard of a plantation that had long since disappeared called “Chestnut Grove”. The last burial from Norma’s family was done in the 1870’s, however the descendents of the slaves of this plantation continued to use the graveyard. The latest stone dated from the 1950’s.

When we got there, after winding through the North Georgia mountains, we exited the car into a cool mist. It was a dank and gray November morning, the roads slick with moisture. The mountain laurel was dark and dripping wet and the woods up the hill were forbidding. Everything was brown or black except for the slash of road up the hill glowing a bright Georgia red clay. Someone had recently laid “crush and run” on the road and installed a chain with a lock across the road. Norma and I decided to go up the hill and leave my mother and the girls in my car. We began to trudge up the hill into deep woods. After a while the road gave way to a small path and branches started to slap us in the face as we climbed. It wasn’t very far -- maybe 1/2 mile, but I felt that I was entering an ancient and primeval forest. The feel of the woods was not benign. We reached the top of the hill and both Norma and I were surprised. The last pictures of the hill that Norma’s family had taken were on a Decoration Day in the 20’s. In the ensuing 90 years or so, the woods had taken over. The sunny hilltop in the black and white photographs had been completely reclaimed by the mountains. The graves beyond the little fence, down the hill -- the descendents of the slaves, had been slightly better taken care of. Many of the stones had toppled and were unreadable. More were just missing. Later Norma and I found out that some of the locals had been taking the large polished slabs of granite and marble and laying them out as paths, carved side down, in the local church graveyard. The stones were being recycled. I felt a strange sadness as I learned this. I ached for the people I never knew, never loved, never mourned and now I would never know their names or where they were buried. Norma and I saw the ghost of writing on a large slab of stone, but could not read it. We decided to hold the stone up to the light to see if we could get the weak November sun to cast a better shadow. As we lifted the stone up, we disturbed a bed of scorpions. They skittered over the stone and our hands. We both screamed and jumped back, dropping the stone and shattering it into several big chunks. I stepped back onto another grave and my left leg went in up to my knee. I pulled myself out and peered into the hole I had made, but couldn’t see anything. Oddly enough, I wasn’t spooked at the time, but on later reflection I realize that this is the sort of stuff that Hollywood loves to use in movies. It just seemed cold and dirty at the time. Norma and I gave up after 30 minutes or so. We could not find a single grave that had not been ruined by the ravages of man or weather.

Our readings in Disciple 4 in Ecclesiastes reminded me of this last road trip. The vague sadness I felt as I saw the forgotten graveyard are echoed in the words:

“For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing,
they have no further reward
and even the memory of them is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.” Eccl 9:5-6

Norma and I made our way slowly down the hill, holding hands, slipping and sliding. We didn’t fall into any more graves, although we did see a large stand of Lady’s Slippers, blooming late in the fall and some beautiful tripartite trillium. By the time we reached the car, we were warmed by our walk, the sun had broken through the trees and the fog was being burned off in the gentle rays of the sun. My mother had a tape in the radio singing with the girls “You are my Sunshine” and had poured coffee for Norma and myself. I loved and was loved, and it was enough.

“Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun -- all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might for in the grave where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Eccl 9:7-10


spookyrach said...

Somberly beautiful. Cemeteries are some of my favorite places, whether for quiet and solitude or exploring with my family or reeling off rolls of film.

I can almost smell the rain while reading your story.

Unknown said...

When Don and I were dating, we were driving around his hometown of Harpswell one day and reached a point where I expected to turn left and head for the shopping center. Instead he said, "Turn right." He is a man of few words, and I was still finding that a romantic characteristic, so I turned and didn't ask questions.
We drove along a curving road, then passed over a little bridge and around a bend, and soon he said, "Pull over there." We parked next to the Volunteer Fire Department. Where are we? I asked. "Come with me," he answered.
We crossed the road. Beyond a white split-rail fence, there was an old cemetery. We passed the stones of 150 years ago and went down a rustic staircase to a lower level overlooking a forest below. His mother, who died at 57, is buried there.
It's a very peaceful place: the trees, the lightly-traveled road, the old, worn stones. On a later visit, we were married and had puppy Molly with us and wandered about reading the gravestones. One Victorian era stone for a husband and wife read: "Together again." In that place, you could believe it.