When I was growing up, my family had a tradition of visiting cemeteries. On Memorial Day, we would make the rounds to all of our significant cemeteries, and wander through their yards. Sometimes it was just my parents, my siblings and me; sometimes we’d have an aunt and uncle, some cousins, or my grandma with us. We would pick wild flowers or roses from our yard and carry them with us in buckets of water.
It wasn’t a solemn occasion; it was sort of a relaxing day outside- the type of day most people get from a park I suppose. These were country cemeteries, with woods or field edging up to them, with old barbed wire defining a border here or there. At Brown Cemetery, where my mom was on the board, we would have a picnic. While I waited for the annual board meeting to finish, I would scrape moss from old gravestones until I could read the names, or sit in the grass eavesdropping on the proceedings (which never turned out to be that interesting). We made the progression through all of the cemeteries – Brown, Leith, Keen’s Chapel, sometimes Edgewood or another one until the ice cream buckets that kept the wildflowers hydrated were empty except for a few dropped leaves and petals. Every stop there were stories, like reciting a rosary, but sometimes new details would come up, or it would be told from the perspective of a different relative. Some of these were family stories – things my mom remembered about her two brothers who were killed by a train; my aunt getting hurt as a child after a headstone she climbed on toppled; how Mary Emaline died as a young girl and was buried in the spot where she had said she felt close to heaven watching over either geese or sheep depending on who was telling the story. Some of them were the stories of other people, just the bell tolling for all of us I guess – a country underpass we passed through sometimes where a foreign exchange student had been killed in a construction accident while watching the bride be repaired; the stones at Keens Chapel that had been piled up for mowing and then couldn’t ever go home because the records of where they belonged were destroyed in a fire; the two little girls whose father had handmade their headstones with mosaic pieces of bottle glass set in the concrete and the echo of all the sadness in the world that I felt every time I stopped to look at them. But still, the day’s tone wasn’t sadness. There was a stillness in the act of remembering, calm in trees and winds and skies over graves.
I was in high school by the time I realized that this wasn’t everyone’s Memorial Day activity. By that time I was drawing gravestones in art classes and taking my 35mm point and shoot everywhere – the school parking lot, outside the bowling alley, the cemeteries I’d find driving my beater car around the country. There was one off the side of the blacktop highway, hidden by a circle of trees that we just called “my” cemetery, where I would bring people sometimes, almost as a gift.
I could continue through the recital of every phase of my life in the cemeteries I visited and make this a very long and rambling story. But instead, I will just promise a week of some of the collected cemeteries that I’ve kept in cameras.