Saturday, March 26, 2016

Yards Full of Stories

 "Mom, you're so WEIRD!  What is it with you and cemeteries?  Your whole family is this way!"

She's right.  I am weird.  I do have a thing with cemeteries.  And my whole family is this way.

It was a freezing Sunday morning in late November.  The kids and I were having a family getaway at Montgomery Bell State Park and on our way to the trail head we passed a beautiful old cemetery.  I pulled the car over.  

That's when my kids began wailing and gnashing their teeth.  "Mom, can't we just go to the trail head?  Why do we have to stop here?"

I could hardly hear them.  I was halfway to the tombstones.

I'm not sure why the Parsons love graveyards so much.  I think it's because we have a deep love for stories, and we know that a graveyard is not just a yard full of graves.  It's also a yard full of stories.  Only with these stories, you don't get the full tale.  All you know is when it began, and when it ended, and maybe you get a few words that came in between. 

Despite their protests, my kids soon left the car and joined me among the headstones.  Soon they were as engrossed as I was.  Grant was calculating the length of each person's life.  Audrey noticed that as you went further back into the cemetery the graves got older and harder to read.  In a far corner of the cemetery she tried to decipher characters on a blackened, moss-covered headstone.

"This one is so hard to read... I can just barely make out the words..." she said.

"Wow, this one over here must be even older.  You can hardly tell there are words on it at all," I said.

By this point Grant had joined us as we crouched close to the oldest, blackest stone in the cemetery.  "That's not a tombstone," he said.  "It's just a black rock, isn't it?"

"Nope, I'm pretty sure that's a tombstone," I said.  "See, you can kind of feel the indentations."

"You're right," Audrey said.  "I wonder what it says.  What do you think it says?" she asked.

"I wonder," I said.  "You know if we had brought the right supplies, like chalk and paper, we could do a chalk rubbing.  You hold the paper over the stone and rub the chalk over it and it lets you see what's carved in the stone."

"Do you think a pen and paper would work?" Audrey asked.

"I doubt it," I said.  "We don't have chalk or crayons in the car, do we?"

"We might," Grant answered.

We all know that "might" is an understatement.  It's likely.  Because my car always has a layer of ... something ... in the floorboards.  Apple cores, empty water bottles, shin guards, make up brushes, books, permission slips, training manuals, flip flops, half-eaten granola bars, spoons, allergy tablets...

My epitaph will say, "She had something rolling around in her floorboard." 

"I'll go see what I can find," I said.  "Meanwhile you guys see if you can make anything out here."

I searched the car, hoping to find chalk or crayons and white paper.  The closest thing I could find was a composition notebook and two pencils.  I was pretty sure this wouldn't work but I wanted to give it a try.

Back at the gravestone, I tore out a piece of paper from the composition book and held it across the front of the stone while Audrey ran the pencil over it, back and forth.  At first it just looked like gray and white bumps and I was afraid we were going to have to admit failure.

But Audrey continued to swipe the pencil over and over, across the paper.  Hypnotized, Grant and I hardly breathed as we watched Audrey's hand swing back and forth.  We were like teenagers at a sleepover huddled around a ouija board, testing to see if a message would emerge from the mystical game, listening for the slightest indication that something was there, skeptical and yet at the same time naively hopeful.

And after about a minute, one very clear line appeared on the paper.

"Wait a second, what is that?  Is that a line?  It is!  Is that part of a letter?  Keep doing that!  There's another line!  Is it an H?  Is that an H?  Or an N?  It's an M!  It's an M!  Grant, do you see that?  It's an M!"

Never have three people been so excited to see an M.

A raspy voice from the dead that had not spoken in centuries was choking out sound once again.

M.  M.  I am M. 

I continued to hold the paper fast and Grant and Audrey took turns swiping the pencil across it, exploring to the left and to the right of our M to find the rest of the name.


His name was Liam M.J.

He was born in 1825.  He died in 1913.

We could feel a series of smaller indentations further down on the stone.  We thought this must be Liam M.J.'s epitaph.  We moved our paper over it and began to swipe the pencil.  These letters were harder to read since they were smaller.  Then, like an ancient telegraph coming over a rusty wire, the letters rose slowly from the rock.

"God.  God ... made?  God ... gives?  Oh!  God gave.  God gave.  It says God gave!"

"He ... He ... He took."

"God gave.  He took.  Aw!"

"He ... will ... He will what?  ...  He will ... what? ...  He will restore!"

"It says, "God gave.  He took.  He will restore.'"

"Wow!  Is there one more line?  There is!  What does it say?"

"He ... He what? ... He dwells?  ...  He ... doth?  ...  He doeth!  That's old English.  He doeth ... all ... He doeth all ... He doeth all things ... He doeth all things ...  He doeth all things well!"

The three of us stepped back for a moment.  We stood in the golden sunlight, in the middle of an ancient cemetery and recited Liam M.J.'s epitaph together.

"God gave.  He took.  He will restore.  He doeth all things well."

And then there was just wind.  And leaves blowing across the graveyard.  We were paralyzed in a trance of reverent amazement.

As we drove to the trail head each child was looking out the window, perhaps thinking about Liam M.J. and wondering what his life had been like.

I was feeling a profound happiness.

I was happy to know that the Parsons' love of cemeteries was a dominant trait, and that mine had been solidly transferred to the next generation.

And I was happy about our encounter with Liam M.J.  He had had a message for us that morning, and we had listened closely and heard him.

Actually I guess Liam M.J. had two messages for us that day.

The first one was obvious.   

God gave.  He took.  He will restore.  

He doeth all things well.

I believe that.  He does do all things well.  He does.  He does.  And I am grateful.

The second message was more subtle, and it was for my children. 

Yes, your mother is weird.  

She has a thing for cemeteries.

Her whole family is that way.

And aren't you glad?


Unknown said...


The beginning of the story reminds me of "supernatural", the family business, saving people, hunting things, lol.

Melanie Gao said...

I never watched Supernatural! I'll have to go check it out now. Maybe I can sue them. :)

Unknown said...

Happy Easter!

Lynn said...

We like graveyards, too! I remember looking at all the names of young children who died of diseases in the late 1800s/early 1900s at a graveyard on an island at our local lake. Very sad.

Melanie Gao said...

Carter happy belated Easter! :)

Lynn, what a cool place to have a graveyard. On an island in a lake. That must be a beautiful final resting place.

Anonymous said...

This is cool. Reminded me of The Carols of Death..... While some find it a unique piece of music, it was one of the first things I was introduced to at The University of Texas at Austin that broadened the universe I had known until then as choral music. Enjoy Interlochen's version. So rarely performed, but so good:

Melanie Gao said...

That was really pretty. Definitely good background music for this post!