The best part of my job is the travel. The worst part of my job is the travel. Long ago, in some other part of my life I was a good sightseer, not any longer. Now, when I hit a new town, I often see none of it. Not because I don’t like to see new things, but because I am bone weary.
In my youth, I walked the streets of Boston, reconstructing Phyllis Wheatley’s journeys through the city, even visiting her church and sitting in her pew. I’ve walked through Seoul, and Tokyo, Hamburg, Brussels, Honolulu, Lima, Huanchaco, and any number of other cities around America, in Japan, Korea, Canada and Mexico. I’ve stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, stared in fascination at the mountains of Arizona and Utah, gaped in wonder at the redwoods, and looked at enough ruins and mummies to last me a lifetime. I’ve walked into ancient temples, scaled step pyramids, felt the reverence of ancient churches and been honored to sit in silence in the presence of the Buddah. That was years ago; these days, when I swan into a city I see very little of it between arriving, performing, trying to get some sleep, and maybe getting a little work done, but that’s not always the case.
I’m in Charleston, Sc for a new festival called Charleston Tells. I had a whole day and a half off. Yes, I know, shocking. I went to one of the museums and toured a one hundred year old mansion. Of course, if you’ve seen one ancient mansion from the pre civil war south, you’ve seen them all. (Just kidding). It was nice to get out.
The mansion was fabulous and the stories were equally fabulous. I told the docent I was a storyteller and I made several jokes about ghosts in the old house. I was out the door and on the stone porch, preparing to go back to my hotel, when she looked out at me from a crack in the door, and asked me if I believed in ghosts. She told me she’d recently lost her mother and she wanted to know if I thought she had some hope of seeing her again. I stepped back into the house, closed the door and gave her one of those ‘storyteller’ answers. She clearly hadn’t liked whatever it was she’d been told at church…either that or she didn’t believe it. I assured her that I believed we are all part of each other and that what comes after this is a continuation of our own story. She asked if I thought her mother would know her, or if her mother even knew what was going on in the world. I told her that I believe that those who love us are always part of us, and they live so long as we remember them. They are not with us in body, but the spirit of who they are is always part of us. She got misty, thanked me and I went on my way.
Perhaps that is why I was drawn to the graveyard today. I am often drawn to graveyards. The only thing I am certain of is that when I no longer have any need of my body, I don’t want it to end up in a box six feet under the ground. It is uncomfortable for me to think that I am standing on a piece of ground full of decaying, mummified, or desiccated bodies. Despite that, I can’t pass up a graveyard.
Staring at weathered tombstones is a strange way to meet people. Some have their names boldly carved in metal, declaring, ‘Bird’ or ‘Lucy’ or ‘Charles’. There are pithy sayings on the newer ones, but devout quotes on the oldest. Bible verses were much in evidence, especially on the gravestones of children. I walked down the large gravel paths and read the names on the tombstones. Many were weathered beyond deciphering. Some stones were carved with long verses or perhaps thoughts or memories, but they were beyond my ability to decipher what they said; wind, water and time made them illegible.
The bodies were buried in family groups, and there were many young women named Eleanor who died in their early teens or twenties…It would seem to me that women should have been more wary of naming their daughters ‘Eleanor’; though I understand they were just trying to honor the president’s wife. My favorite tombstone in the whole of the place was not one of the lofty spires, or crowded with angels, or given a lovely verse, or blessed by some saint; no, my favorite tombstone was one in which I could make out neither the woman’s name nor the man’s below hers. Between those names was a phrase I had never seen on a tombstone before…’Consort of’. I admit to stopping at that point. It was preposterous, and for a moment I was certain I’d read it wrong, but, no, there it was ‘consort’. There were many titles given to the women buried around me; wife, of course, mother, certainly, beloved, sure, but ‘consort’? I attempted to figure out the names, but unfortunately, whoever engraved this tombstone seems to have been less excited about engraving the names and much more enthusiastic about the word ‘consort’. That is the only word clearly distinguishable on the stone. I stood there, wondering what that funeral might have been like. Curious as to which member of the family decided to have that word added to the tombstone; trying to imagine the distinguished, wealthy members of upper crust Charleston, SC gathered in shock and titillating wonder at the words on the stone. As they stood around trying to be unmoved by the audacity, or pretending they were above the scandal of it all, they most probably thought this would be a thing that lived in infamy. Perhaps that was the whole point. Who knows? Maybe this ‘consort’ was black, which really would have been a controversy in 1835. Probably not black, but goodness, just the thought of her being a ‘consort’ was enough to conjure amazing images of societal horror. What would those long dead people think if they knew that in 2013, a woman roaming through the ancient tombstones, unable to read anything but the word ‘consort’ would have a bit of a giggle at how ludicrous it seems.
That was the moment I started talking to the people in the graveyard. I thanked them for putting up with my visit and my prying eyes, for it is certain that in their day, privacy and keeping one’s secrets close to the vest was the only policy they knew. I apologized for reading their stones and imagining them in their best and worst moments. I wished there were images engraved on the tombstones so I knew what they looked like instead of pulling up the most ridiculous stereotypes I could conjure. Captain Joe Keynock must have cut a grand figure with a full beard and some iteration of handlebar mustache. His waifish wife, perhaps with pale eyes and even paler hair all piled up on top of her head, as was the case of ladies of her day, stood beside him despite the drinking, gambling and wenching that was the common past time of upper class men in the 1800’s. What of the large stones dogged by the tiny tombstones of deceased children, following like little ducklings, how had they all died? Smallpox? Measles? Flu? How? I turned and looked back at all of the white, granite and weathered stones, many turned gray or black with age and I thought, “Dead as these people are, they are still shouting, I WAS HERE!”
Then, I considered it and I realized that none of them were shouting. These folks had gone to meet their maker before any of these stones were erected. It wasn’t them; it was their loved ones. The people who had come after, the people left behind who were shouting. The richer they were, the louder they were shouting and all of them were saying the same thing, “WE WON’T FORGET! YOU WERE IMPORTANT! YOU ARE LOVED! OUR LIVES WERE BETTER BECAUSE YOU WERE HERE AND WE WON’T FORGET!” They’d gone through lots of trouble to remember. They’d gone through lots of trouble to make sure that nobody forgot, but in 2013, when a middle aged African American woman walked through that grave plot, the only thing she left with were the words, ‘Consort Of’, and what might have been the most talked about funeral of its day.
For all of us who have loved ones who are flown and gone, never let them forget that you love them, and miss them, and treasure them and honor them, but let us always remember that the place they inhabit more than anywhere else is in our hearts and minds and souls and stories.
Grandma Esther, Grandpa Terry, Grammy, Grampy, Great Uncle Eddie, Great Uncle Raymond, Great Grandma Tospey, Aunt Evetta, Great Uncle Mitchel, Great Aunt Ruby, Zachary, Rogie, Aunt Bert, and Gramps. I didn’t forget.
Jackie, Katherine, Doc, Diane, Ray and all of you who are telling in the great beyond…we can still hear your stories. Thank You.