“To live with the conscious knowledge of the shadow of uncertainty, with the knowledge that disaster or tragedy could strike at any time; to be afraid and to know and acknowledge your fear, and still to live creatively and with unstinting love: that is to live with grace.”- Peter Henry Abrahams
The morning service ends and people trickle out to the church yard. Graves can be seen encircling the back half of the chapel yard. A few members of the congregation head over the dewy grass towards the graves of loved ones. Others mill around the front, talking and gossiping. At times, I wonder if our town uses Sunday morning service as an excuse to socialize and gossip. Some of the women seem to live for the moment when they can gossip with friends after service.
I stand at the divide between the living and the dead, waiting for my grandmother and mother to join me. We have a tradition of our own for Sunday service. My mother started it when I was just a baby and unless you’re extremely sick, you don’t miss the tradition. In just a few moments, when they join me, we’ll venture into the meadow of the dead and locate a grave I’m all too familiar with – the grave of my father. From what I’ve been told, Daniel Carter was a great man who would have made an amazing dad. I never had the opportunity to meet him.
My father died in a car accident the day I was born. He received the call that my mother was in labor and took off for the hospital to see my birth. He rushed through traffic at a safe pace, anxious to be a dad. He didn’t see the other car coming. It was sliding and swerving on the icy roads of November. The driver had lost total control of his car and as a result, my father lost his life that day. My birthday is a bittersweet occasion, as my mother remembers my father and tries to celebrate another year of my life – another year that my father has missed.
I break out of my thoughts and look around, finally spotting my mother coming towards me. In her hand are three white roses – one for each of us. My grandmother is trailing behind, pumping her legs in an effort to keep up with my mother on the uphill climb. After they reach me, we head into the graveyard until we find the simple tombstone beneath a large willow tree. My grandmother takes a seat on the stone bench beneath the tree. My grandmother had this bench set there years ago.
I take a seat on the bench as my mother approaches the grave. She kneels beside it, placing the white rose in front of the tombstone. She talks in a hushed voice, talking to my father. I don’t know what she tells him each week – that is between him and her. There are a few moments of silence before she touches the ground above his coffin. She stands and joins my grandmother on the bench.
Grandma Lillian’s turn is next. My father was her only son and some of her only family. When she married my grandfather, she estranged herself from what remained of her own kin. Her family hadn’t approved of him, but she was in love with him. She defied their every wish to spend her life with him. He died a year before my father, leaving her a widow. After my father’s death, she moved in with my mother to help care for me. I watch as she kisses the rose lightly and lays it next to my mother’s. She wipes away a tear and returns to the bench.
I’m the last one to have a turn, as usual. I like being last – it gives me the longest time to spend with my father. The two women my father loved most rise from their bench and give me a slight nod before heading back towards the church. I like being left alone with my father. It seems silly to think about, but this is the only time I really get to spend with him. I won’t say anything to him – I don’t believe in talking to the dead, especially a dead stranger. But I will spend time with him.
The graveyard surrounding the church is the only connection I have to my father. His grave seems out of place among the aged graves of history containing stories that remain a mystery to the living. The four closest graves to my father date back over one hundred years. There is no order to the graveyard, as it was started over two hundred years ago. The earliest grave I have found in the cemetery dates back to 1782.
I approach my father’s grave, still clutching the white rose my mother gave me. I bend down in the same fashion as her and place it beside the other two roses. Three white roses now sit in front of the tombstone. I know from experience that they will be gone before they wilt. I’m not sure who cleans up the flowers of the graveyard, but nothing is left wilted as a reminder of the harshness of death and it’s ever present domain in our lives.
I back away from my father’s grave, still staring at the tombstone. The bleak gray stone looks remorseful in the shade of the willow. I take a seat on the concrete bench and settle against its back. I have forgotten about the morning rain until it soaks into my clothes from the bench. I do my best to ignore my damp clothes as I pull a notebook and pen from my bag. I look around at the graves until one stands out to me.
1847 – 1864
I stare at the grave which is only inches from that of my father. This young man died when he was only my age. I stare at the dates for a second longer, taking in their meaning. I recall from my history classes that the Civil War occurred around this time. It’s quite likely that this boy was a victim of the brutal war. It’s even more likely that there’s no body to match this tombstone. My pen lingers for a moment as my mind contemplates the story of Ashley Hendricks.
Ashley jumped over the log and ran faster. He could hear the others running behind him. He couldn’t tell if they were northerners or southerners. He couldn’t tell if they were on his side or not. All he could tell was that they were running after him. Was this to be his end? Was he to die in battle?
The pace of the soldiers seemed to quicken. With each passing moment, they were gaining quickly on the young, naïve soldier running ahead. No matter how fast he ran, the soldier would never stand a chance in these woods – they knew them like the back of their hand. They were bound to be the victors in this scenario.
I put my pen down and read back over what I’ve written. Each time I write about one of the old graves in this cemetery, I find myself focused on war. It seems that any number of them could have been soldiers that lost their lives in war. All I know of war is what I’ve seen in movies. War has never been close to me, like it was for many of these men and women. What must it have been like growing up back then?
My mother has always accused me of being too curious. She thinks I spend too much time with my nose in a book to truly enjoy life. According to her, living life to its fullest means getting out and doing stuff. It doesn’t mean reading and writing, the two things I enjoy the most. Therefore, I find myself forced to socialize and entertain at my mother’s side. Sunday afternoons by my father’s grave is the only time I’m guaranteed to be left alone, so I take full advantage of it.
I read my passage aloud to the empty graveyard. I would like to think that my father or someone is out there listening, out there enjoying my stories. It gives more meaning to the story when I feel it’s for someone’s enjoyment other than just mine.
Night's Final Hour by Crystal and Pamela MacLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.