While browsing my writing portfolio, I discovered an essay I wrote nearly thirteen years ago. It's dated September 3, 2003; however, I think it's worth sharing today. Without further ado, here's History 101.
This summer, Mama and I decided we needed to improve our physical condition. We agreed to walk in the evenings. Since our neighborhood is not walker-friendly, we needed to find a suitable place to walk.
“How about the City Cemetery?” Mama suggested.
I wrinkled my nose. Walking among the dead seemed as ridiculous as walking in a neighborhood with a Rottweiler on the loose.
“It’s peaceful there,” she continued. “You won’t see spirits rising from the ground.”
Not wanting to appear cowardly, I agreed to go.
The sky, gray and foreboding, mirrored my thoughts as I turned my green Dodge Neon down the road leading into the heart of the cemetery. I was less than enthusiastic. We were entering the final resting place of thousands of people, not the cardiovascular unit of a fitness club.
“Let’s park here,” Mama said, pointing to a gravel lot across from a white clapboard building that resembled a garage.
As we exited the car, I spied a sign above the double doors of the building. "City of Poplar Bluff Cemetery Shop," it read in black block letters. A shiver crept up my spine. I did not want to imagine the work that went on behind those doors.
Silently, we walked down the paved road to the left of the building. June bugs sang in the distance, harmonizing with the crickets. Ahead, a group of crows fed near a freshly dug grave.
“I want to see the new grave,” Mama said.
I waited impatiently as she walked across the brittle, thirsty lawn toward the tan mound blanketed with a rainbow of flowers. A horsefly whizzed by my head, making me shriek.
“Let’s hurry before I’m attacked by ferocious beasts,” I cried.
She laughed. “Why don’t you look around? The flies won’t bother you if you keep moving.”
I rolled my eyes and started walking. I wanted to walk for exercise, not look at tombstones. The thought of walking across a lawn knowing that six feet below lay decaying bodies seemed morbid.
I walked until the paved road met a stretch of gravel. Toward my left, an ancient structure caught my eye. Tentatively leaving the path, I waded through the grass toward the tombstone. One large stone lay upon another, like an ancient altar in the Ten Commandments movie. A stone lamb topped the altar, its right leg slightly raised. White sandstone and powdery orange moss covered the entire structure, which rested on a rectangular base. The base bore the inscription, “Children of Rev. G.M. and Fannie Adams.”
Intrigued, my eyes flicked to the tombstones surrounding the altar. White sandstone and orange moss covered each one. A rectangular one with an arched top sat nearest the altar. I traced the Masonic symbol engraved at the top. A crack zigzagged like a lightning bolt pierced the left side. I outlined the inscription: James H. Smith, born August 18, 1853, died October 29, 1908.
Another rectangular tombstone completed the first row. A raised banner with praying hands adorned the arched top. I caressed the raised letters of the deceased's name: Annie A. Below, an inscription announced, "Infant of J.R. and E.R. Poplin, born December 25, 1874, died July 3, 1875."
Behind the altar, a narrow structure reached nearly two feet in height. The ever-present orange moss and white sandstone rendered the inscription unreadable. Two crusty beetle carcasses clung to the headstone like an engraving.
The next tombstone on the right was broken, its jagged edges jauntily jutting the air. Only part of a name, Wiley A., could be discerned.
An arched structure, its top covered in white sandstone like a snowcapped mountain, concluded the back row. The orange moss obliterated the entire inscription.
Sighing, I surveyed the six tombstones that bravely challenged time and the elements of nature. Trepidation no longer clouded my awestruck heart. The people buried beneath the stones dotting the cemetery lawn had lived. They had not discovered a new world or presided over the United States, but they were as much a part of history as Christopher Columbus or John F. Kennedy. The cemetery was not simply a resting place for the deceased, but a history book with pages added every day.
Mama squeezed my shoulder, shaking me from my reverie. “Ready to finish walking?”
I nodded. We finished the walk in silence.
Now we walk in the cemetery nearly every day, and I no longer cringe at the thought. I consider it a history lesson with healthy benefits.
It's interesting to note that, thirteen years later, Mama and I still walk in the City Cemetery. Now, however, we are joined by my canine fur-baby, Buddy. Mama still likes to pause and read tombstones; I still shriek at horseflies. Old habits die hard.
Until the next post . . . keep smiling!