Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

I sat in the audience in the school gymnasium with all the other parents, eagerly waiting to watch my eldest child, Short Stack, take the stage with his class. It was the spring concert and my little boy was about to do what he loves: preform. I wouldn’t say that he’s really a show off, but he does loves the chance to do what he can do for an audience, especially if he’s worked hard at it. Especially, if he can sneak in a little flourish here and there.

Okay, maybe he is a bit of a show off. It’s always a good show with Short Stack

Lulu Belle, his younger sister sat as patiently as a five year old could in my lap. I didn’t admonish her incessant wiggling because I understood what she was going through. If Short Stack’s love for performing was likened to the fire of a lamp, hers is a volcano lighting up the sky. For her, kindergarten doesn’t start until next fall, and she understands that her time to be in the lime light will come, but in the mean time, the pressure she must have to exert on her impulse to run up, front and center, must be like the pressure behind the little Dutch boy’s dyke.

Wiggle, wiggle.

Short Stack had been practicing with his class for some time and he hand given my wife a sneak peek performance a few days before in our living room, but I sadly have to admit that I was distracted with any number of household duties at the time and had listened with only half a ear from the kitchen. I registered his little voice singing in the background, but the lyrics had drifted through my head and directly out the window before I had a chance to gather them up and file them away. I was eager to hear them again with all my attention focused on him. All I could remember was that he had told me the first song would be, “Rocky Mountain High.” In my mind, a vision of John Denver, crooning and strumming, leapt to the fore. What could be cuter than kids singing John Denver?

I don’t know either.

What I do know is that it didn’t turn out to be John Denver.

As his diminutive class took their postitions on the risers at the front of the stage, the music director gathered together their attention such that any one can, and set the pitch. Then they began to sing.

Rocky mountain, rocky mountain, rocky mountain high.

When you’re on that rocky mountain, hang your head and cry.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

Sunny valley, sunny valley, sunny valley low.

When you’re in that sunny valley, sing it soft and slow.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

Stormy ocean, stormy ocean, stormy ocean wide.

When you’re on that stormy ocean there’s no place to hide.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

It is obviously a very old song and each verse came with hand gestures to hammer the points home. The crying on the rocky mountain was traced with a finger from their eyes, down their little, round cheeks and in the sunny valley, heads were hung and they sag to their feet. The literal choking point for me was on the stormy ocean, though. As this group of six and seven year olds sang of the horrors of being caught in a violent storm at sea, they covered their faces, fingers up, palms pressed against their eyes. My vision got a little blurry at this point, so I’m a touch vague on any further visuals I might have missed.

I’m an overly empathetic person at heart, and I know this well. For whatever reason, it’s always been a tendency of mine to dive into the history of things and imagine the situation of those who set that particular bit of the past into motion. When I walk through an old house, I inevitably wind up noticing some small detail, a decorative bit of molding or the head of a square cut nail, and I wonder who put it there. What did they look like? Was it the homeowner? Who struck that nail struck home? It can instantly transport me back to a time a hundred or more years ago and I feel like a ghost, watching silently and undetected over the shoulder of a hunched figure, dutifully working away to complete whatever project it might have been. I don’t know why, but it’s what my mind tends to default to. Add to that my love of history and a possibly unhealthy obsession with trying to do things the old way my self, and it all equals to me sort of living in the past quite a good deal of the time. I quite like it there, even if it seems to unexpectedly smack me in the face with melancholy every once in a while. It can be powerful stuff.

Two more songs were sung by his class, though I can’t remember just now what they were. That first one had deeply taken root and held my mind fast. I enthusiastically applauded with the other parents and welcomed Short Stack to the empty seat I had saved for him next to me and we watched the rest of the performance as the other grades cycled though, each with three songs of their own. It was an enjoyable time and the children all looked justifiably proud. We were all proud, parents and children, alike.

That song though…

Over the next few days, I caught myself humming it as I bustled about doing various chores and even singing it outright as I made dinner. This never failed to catch the attention of Short Stack and he would remark on it. Not in an accusatory way, but more in the astonishment that he could have taught me a song that so struck me.

“Dad.” A big smile crosses his face. “what song are you singing?”

About a week later, I found my self in the unusual situation of having some time to burn in town, and today I had planned for it. There is a very venerable cemetery here in Portland, which contains all that remains of many of the founding families from the settlement era of our coastline, and that was where I headed. There are Longfellows buried here. Those Longfellows. There are innumerable captains, and of not just sailing vessles of trade, but captains of warships and crew members too. Their stories are caved in slate, quarried hundreds of years ago and patiently hand lettered and inscribed with their names and duties. There are a lot of stories in there. Every stone stands as a monument to another story. Knowing them is the hard part.

Some years ago, I had discovered head stones bearing the same surname as my own, and I had made it a point to do some care for them. I plant flowers in the fall so that they may bloom in the spring. I make note of any deterioration and do what I can to mitigate it. Today, I had brought a pair of hand shears to clear the grass that grew tall against the faces and backs of the grey stones.

Snip, snip.

As I knelt, back hunched to the sun, I grabbed the grass in tufts and carefully cut it away in long strokes. Without warning, the song came back to my lips in a hum.

“Do, do, do, do, do remember me.”

Glancing around to make sure I was alone with my ancient company, I decided that singing was better. What, after all, could be a more fitting song? So, I sang, quietly of course, but still, it felt good to say the words, if not a trifle sad as well. To be fair, I don’t remember these people. I’m not even sure if they are relatives or not. I do know that my kin came from this general area, but on the coast, there was always a lot of migration of people and whole families.

They might not be any relation at all.

Honestly though, I don’t care. They are family to me.

Here, laying in this ground before me, is all that remains of some who had climbed mountains, crossed valleys and, since one is a sea captain, even ridden on oceans packed high with angry, white toped waves. They had all left family either though immigration or mortality and due to the confines of the era, had to rely on memory alone to visit them again. No photographs. No telephone calls. No quick visits from a hundred miles away. Choices were more permanent back then, much like the slate they used to mark the passing of soul.

Who knows how long these particular stones have stood unattended? A hundred years or more of grass grown high and unkempt seems likely and I can’t help but think about that as I clear away the weeds and timothy. Who held onto the tops of these stones when they were first planted so that they may refresh the memories of those now buried beneath them? They too are long gone now

I’ll remember them now, to the extent that I can. Keeping the plots clean and kept is a duty I happily take on and my children, always looking to be a help to daddy, happily join in with the quick and easy task when they join me.

Finished with both the song and my clipping, I look down with a smile at the neat job the shears had done. In a sea of overgrown grass, it stands out as an island of order and I feel proud. I wonder who these possible family elders of mine were and what they looked like. What did they talk about? Whom did they enjoy to speak with? A favorite food, a often told joke or even, were they happy with their lives? Some hundreds of years later, who can say? What I can do is remember to remember them. I’ll stop by when I can and neaten things up, plant more flowers and show my kids, again, where the stones stand in the crowded jumble of lost memories and relatives that reside there, faces grey and hard in the summer sun.

Here, there are stories to be found. All we need to do is look for them and then, if the story is discovered, share it. Tell your children and their children. Write it down and show anyone with an interest. Let it live on past your own memory so that we all have a chance to remember.

Do, do, do, do remember me.

The Old Ways

I have always had a fascination with cemeteries, the old ones, anyway.

Growing up in New Hampshire, the heart of the “old”, New World, gave me some wonderful opportunities to spend rather a lot of my younger years walking among the stones, reading the inscriptions and appreciating the handwork that went into them. My particular hometown was settled in 1735, and though there are other towns and cities a few hundred years older in these parts, I always thought that the mid 18th century was a respectable time for a New England town to start. It also gives the old burying grounds some wonderful character.

It gave them slate stones. And there is nothing like a slate stone.

Slate is simply amazing material. It is both fragile as glass and stronger than steel. It will shattering easily if hit by anything of any hardness, (a lawn mower, a car’s bumper, even the frozen ground if it falls in the winter before the snow covers the brown grass) but if left unmolested, it will hold the smallest detail of the craftsmen’s chisel for hundreds of years without wear or blemish. It will not take a high sheen, and yet, it will not loose any of its beauty for lifetime, after lifetime, after lifetime. I have always loved slate stones.

On weekends or long summer evenings, I fondly recall going for bike rides with my Dad, a man who also enjoys a good stroll through a graveyard. It was he who really got me interested in the stories you could find there and the two of us would often wind up in one after a bit of peddling around our end of town. I can think of one burial ground in particular and for two distinct reasons. The first is that it is located on a very old crossroads, not more than a stones throw down the street from an old, 18th century tavern, now a private home. The character of the whole place seems frozen in time and I have no doubt that if you could bring a town man from 1780 to that spot, he would know exactly where he stood.

If not for the fact that he would also be very, very dead.
But hey…!

The echo of ages past is strong there and adds real gravity to the tall, black slates standing like quiet bedsteads in the tall grass and leaves. The second reason that particular place stands out in my mind is because it’s where I ate a spider. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t forget and it’s not something I’d recommend making a habit out of.

As I walked through the old grounds, I had turned my head to say something to my father. At the moment my neck swiveled back forward, I walked between two stones, directly into the web cast between them and, POP! The spider went right in. It was an… interesting moment. The problem was that he was pretty far back there, past my tongue, actually. Spitting him out would have required more tonsil control than I had, so, there was only one thing to do. I didn’t even have any water to wash him down. I recall a lot of grimacing, squinting and dry swallowing.

Despite my little impromptu meal, I still enjoy visiting these places, though now, with a wary eye cast about for unexpected webs.

I tend to travel with water now, too.

Spiders or no, I keep going back. I can’t help it. I find these places to have a magnetism I simply can’t pull away from for long. Oddly, they make me happy.

Well, maybe not happy. Peaceful.

Alive.

Serine.

I think I know why. Here, in the burial ground, everyone is good. They are mothers and fathers. They are sons and daughters. They are old, young, middle aged, and missing but for a stone. Their past transgressions are lost to time. They are just families.

And sometimes, more and more now, it seems, the families are there, but missing stones, which brings me to Susan Jane.

In the ancient cemetery down the road from my house, lays in rest a mother and two of her children. A son, George, died as an infant. He daughter, Susan Jane, died when she was five years and eight months old. The year of Susan’s passing was 1835 and that’s more important that you might think. The mother, Lucinda, had passed away only a few years after her daughter, and her slate slab stands true and clear to this day. The V cut letters are bold and easy to read. If you get close enough, you can see the individual chisel hits in each letter. Only the telltale scrapes at the bottom from careless lawn moving mar the smooth surface. Lucinda’s slate stone stands out sharply in comparison to her children’s unreadable white lumps. By the 1820’s, slate was fast falling out of favor for gravestones and marble soon took over completely. You might wonder then, why her stone was slate, while her children’s were marble. Well, even if you didn’t, I’ll still tell you why:

A lot of people bought their own grave markers in their young adulthoods. They would simply store them in the attic, shed or basement until they were needed. It was seen as a way to get what you wanted on the stone as well as being a courtesy to your family. That, and you didn’t have to set aside part of what you left behind to pay for your marker. Think of it as grave insurance. I’m willing to bet, this is why Lucinda’s stone is slate. It would have still been in vogue when she entered childbearing age. Her young children had passed after the age of slate had pretty much come to a close. And this is a problem.

We are loosing about a hundred and seventy years of history in the blink of an eye, because it’s cut in marble.

Marble is a beautiful stone. It’s wonderful to carve, brilliant when polished and, sadly, melts like salt when exposed to air pollution and acid rain. When I first found Lucinda’s stone, I crouched down to read the inscription, checked her age and then, looked around. She was married and in her thirties so there were probably children here too. To her left, a small marble stone and to her right, a slightly larger one. They were nearly unreadable. The only parts I could decipher from the smallest stone was, “GEO.” at the top, and the word, “died” Everything else was scrubbed away. The larger stone had slightly more. The name was obliterated through pitting, but, “Daughter of Benjamin and Lucinda” as well as the month and day of her death. Most of her name, the year of her death and her age were missing.

It was a worthy hunt.

One of the wonderful things about a small community like the one in which I live is that someone is bound to know local lore, and mine was no different. It only took about three tries before I found the right person to talk to. In her possession was a book compiling all the inscriptions, names, placements and dates of everyone in that particular cemetery. It had been made long ago, before the ravages of pollution had done such a number on our past. She had everything I was looking for. I was ready for the next step.

Now, the family to whom Lucinda and her children belong has long since left this island. They are scattered to the winds and I have never heard of any of them returning for a visit. At least not in the past eighty years or so. I wouldn’t know where to begin to start looking. What I do know is that in just another five or six years, the last traces of text on George and Susan Jane’s stones will have disappeared forever. The pieces of marble that mark their final resting place are now broken at ground level and crumbing like bread. Soon, they will sink away into the soil. This will happen within my lifetime. Marble has betrayed yet another piece of history. But slate though…

So, with my love of the old ways, much of my time spent doing one form of art or another and my particular interest in this one family, their last mark to show they were here, I’ve decided to do something. I’ve decided to carve in slate.

Some people don’t even call slate a stone at all but simply metamorphic rock. I don’t really understand this but the semantics really aren’t important. What are important are these facts:

Slate carves like nothing else. It is so soft that you can scratch it with a hard fingernail, and yet, it will stand unmarked by three or four hundred years of weathering.

It has a very fine composition, unlike the fat crystals you’ll find in granite and so the detail you can get in slate outshines the finest granites.

Also, slate is the best at resisting that enemy of graveyard inscriptions everywhere, the lichen. Granite might be stronger and Marble more brilliant, but both succumb to lichen quickly and loose their identity beneath a thousand islands of the little blooms of growth. Slate, so long as it isn’t toppled or split, will out live all other options by centuries. Plus, I find it beautiful in its simplicity.

I have decided to start with Susan Jane’s stone first and have already done some test pieces. The profile of her original stone is still identifiable and so, I’ll mirror that in her new stone as well. As for decoration, if there ever was an image at the top (called the tympanum), above her name, then it is gone entirely now. This took some serious thought and in the end, I picked something that I hope would have made her parents pleased. Here in Maine, the black cap chickadee is not only our state bird, but a sweet little bird as well. It stays here all year long, through all seasons and its call is immediately recognizable and beautiful. Hearing and seeing one has always made me smile. It’s a tiny little thing, but then, so was Susan Jane.

What has surprised me the most about this endeavor is the reaction I’ve received from those whom I’ve talked with and the positive remarks have been very encouraging. So now, I have some more work to do this winter. Right now, the ground is frozen hard as the grave markers in the burial yard and a fresh coat of snow has been pulled over the children’s markers like a heavy down quilt. It will be some months before I can bring in the new, purple-black marker and set it home beside Susan Jane’s mother. I’ll bury the old stones just below the sod so they can be retrieved if desired, but I think it likely they will rest there with the occupants for a long, long time.

Who knows? This could be habit forming and with time and practice, I might just become proficient enough to make some real work out of this. In the mean time though, I’ll happily continue on in this fashion. I’ll look for the shattered or pitted slabs, now unreadable or just about to become so and see if I can help out in my own way.

Perhaps some day, a hundred years or more from now, some wandering soul taking a walk through the cemetery will stoop over to read the stone of a little girl who died when Andrew Jackson sat in the White House, read her short story and marvel at how crisp the letter cutting is. They might reflect on what she saw in her brief years and remember her name for just a little while longer.

What I do know is, without a new slate monument, she will never be seen at all. And that would be too bad for all parties involved.

So, I’ll make my self a sandwich for lunch and sit down with it, the blank stone and chisels and eat as I chip away on this sunny afternoon. We shall see how it turns out and if it’s worthy of marking such a long lost treasure.

Just hold the spider, please.

3/7/05 – The Old Trott Cemetery

Monday Poem – A Year and a Day

The Old Trott Cemetery – 3/7/05

The stones of the old plot are deep in winter’s snow.
Who lies beneath is a mystery though.
They have lived their lives.
They have seen good days
and watched the tides and the sunlight fade.

Their homes, built with no aid of power.
Their hands grew callous and their gardens did flower
with the same small blooms that will open this May.
But their names are lost.

Time scrubbed them away.

Visiting Family

As we walked through the cemetery, I made sure to take the time to stop and read as many names as I could. If present, I would repeat quietly the short inscription, often in verse, that adorned the stone, giving me some sense of the person and the loss felt by the family and friends. By now, those who had mourned the passing of these grandparents, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and children, would themselves have passed on long before the birth of any whom I would have met in my own life time. This was an old place.

The stones that draw me in the most are carved slate. For those who enjoy walking through old burial grounds in New England or for that matter, any of the thirteen original colonies, the slate stones are very special. Often found resting at awkward angles and appearing to be impossibly thin for their size, our colonial era forefathers preferred the stone as the markers for their loved ones. Later, they would change to marble and then on to granite, but nothing is quite as stately as slate to my mind. It also holds up far better than anything else I’ve ever seen.

The car trip we were on had been long and hot and though it’s a drive that normally takes me about two and half hours when I’m solo, with two small children involved and the need for lunch breaks and potty stops, we had managed to stretch it out to about four and a half thus far, and there was still an hour more driving time to go. When my wife noticed the farm stand coming up on the right, we decided to make just one more pit stop in the attempt to placate Short Stack and Lulu Belle with fresh produce and see if we couldn’t keep the peace during the last push to get our selves home.

As we pulled in to the dirt parking lot, my eyes went straight to the adjoining ancient cemetery. Carefully mown, tended and surrounded by what was obviously a home made but very well done, iron rail fence. The posts were fashioned from coulombs of granite of the type you’d expect to see used as hitching posts or pasture markers. Indeed, they might have been just that at one time. As soon as I had gotten the kids out of the car, the three of us headed right to the edge of the fence and then over it as Action Girl went in to look for provisions.

A lot of people find cemeteries to be creepy or sad and if they don’t actively avoid them, they tend not to see them at all. They just seem to skip by on their radar. Me, I’m a history junkie. Worse than that, I’m a hopeless romantic of a history junkie. I love graveyards and feel not only comfortable in them, but actually happy and safe there. It’s not a giddy kind of happy that an archeologist might feel when they find something significant at a dig, but more of a, “being amongst friends” kind of happy. Looking at the names on the stones, everyone there looks to be kind and calm to me. The foibles of errant emotions and untold past arguments and unkindness are swept away by inscribed words like, “Mother” and, “Only Son.” In rest, they are all good people, dearly missed.

Short Stack and Lulu Belle love places like this as well. Since they have been able to walk, I’ve brought them to one of our local graveyards for some run around time. As I expected, they immediately headed off among the grave markers, voices squeaking and crouching down to hide. Short Stack, being an older, wiser three years old to Lulu Belle’s year and half, knows the rules for places like this. Running and playing is encouraged while showing the graves respect is necessary. He has at least the idea that each one represents a person in some fashion and even if he can’t completely wrap his mind around it yet, he does know that there are names written on them and will ask who they are. Lulu Belle is more into following him around and giggling at his antics rather than finding out who’s buried where.

The stones here go way back and the slate is still well defined and the names easy to read. This particular cemetery has been in use by the same families since the seventeen hundreds, all the way through to modern times and the stone types show the progression of the centuries. Sadly, as is often the case, the marble is nearly unreadable having stood up poorly to the increasing acids in our atmosphere and the salt spray from the nearby highway. This stone, favored by the people of the eighteen hundreds, simply melts away and a hundred years worth of family names disappears into the grass beneath our feet. Still, it’s a beautiful place and since the grounds are so well kept, I’m hopeful that someone knows who is resting here.

lydia littlefield

Action Girl’s return draws the kids to her like a magnet and strawberries are handed out to happy effect. We spend a few more minutes among the stones and enjoy our road side snack while we remark on the beautiful condition of this place as the kids meander about scarfing down double handfuls of berries, coloring their faces and hands with the warm juices. I notice happily that not a single stone on its back in the grass and that the bottom of each stone is unmarred by careless lawn equipment. Everything is as it should be and the names read like an unfamiliar family album. The Littlefield’s look to have started this plot and then the Grey’s were introduced and then the Winns. Other names begin as the stones get newer and the inscriptions act as lines on a family tree, announcing marriages, births and deaths, some even giving us bits of personal stories about those who are at our feet. I even find a stone with my daughter’s somewhat uncommon name on it. 1877 to 1977, she lived. Not a bad run by any account. If my little girl were old enough to understand, I would happily point it out to her. We walk along, putting this mostly unknown piece of our country’s history together with the names we find and I think about how spots like this are some of my favorite places to be. It’s quite wonderful, really.

The last leg of the trip is uneventful and the kids only squawk lightly about having to get back into a steamy, hot car. With the air conditioning on full blast, we continue on down the road. We’d be home soon after just one more stop to visit a party and be with some seldom seen family, including my children’s own Great Grandfather. It was interesting to be at the gathering after having looked into the past of another’s family and it helped me enjoy my self even more.

Some day, naturally, we shall all be gone. My hope is that at some point a young family might walk by my own clean, dark stone and read my name. Who knows, perhaps they will know me and will sit in the hot August sun for a while whilst they feast on fresh berries and enjoy the day. Who could ask for more?

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