In honor of Memorial Day, one revered writer describes a visit to his family plot in this inspirational story.
Posted in , Nov 14, 2008
One morning not long ago down here in Savannah, Georgia, where I live, I drove out to Laurel Grove to visit the graves of my parents and grandparents. Laurel Grove is a very old burial ground on the edge of town, with Spanish moss weeping over tilted headstones and dust motes hanging in shafts of sunlight. The sense of timelessness there is strong.
I always have the feeling that the memory of my forebears lingers in Laurel Grove, but little else. For this notion I have to thank Charlotte, the cook we had when I was growing up. Nothing ever seemed to trouble Charlotte. She presided over her kitchen singing old songs in a rich contralto that came floating up the dumbwaiter shaft along with the marvelous smell of cornbread. One of her favorites was "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home?
A band of angels comin' after me,
Comin' for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot...
It was from that old spiritual I got the idea my ancestors weren't really in Laurel Grove—they had been transported angelically elsewhere long ago. Still, now and then I like to go out there to make sure nothing has changed.
Passing under the old wrought-iron arch above the entrance, I began looking for the tops of the towering magnolia trees in our family plot. Unless you have a landmark it's hard to find anything in the maze of winding lanes that make up most of the cemetery. Planted long ago, one at each corner of the lot, those magnolias are now at least 60 feet high. Their gnarled roots have so emphatically displaced the foundations of the iron fence that everything is crooked and the gate barely works. To repair the fence the trees would have to be taken down. But that would be a sacrilege, and certainly frowned upon by the old brown owl who lives in one of them.
A few years ago I tried to compromise by having the rusty fence painted, even though it was askew. But then it looked so shiny and peculiar compared to everything else that I almost wished I hadn't.
It's always quiet in Laurel Grove; nobody is ever around. I forced open the reluctant gate and sat on the edge of my Confederate grandfather's tombstone with its cavalry saber in bas-relief on the marble. I didn't think he would mind since he wasn't there. Everything looked familiar and undisturbed. Mother and Father shared a headstone in one corner.
I remembered Mother once making it clear she preferred Bonaventure, a more manicured cemetery across town. "This one seems a bit run-down," she murmured.
"Never mind," Father reassured her. "By the time we need it we'll be a bit run-down ourselves." It was Father who advised me to regard Laurel Grove as an anteroom to eternity, "a pleasant place to rest until you're told which way you're supposed to go."
While I was sitting there in the warm sunshine it occurred to me that perhaps in the South death is woven more closely into the fabric of living than it is in other parts of the country. I've often seen cars stopped on country roads, their occupants standing outside respectfully, hats in hand, while the funeral cortege of some stranger wound by.
Funerals themselves seem to have more flavor, too. I remembered the night in New York when a phone call came from Savannah: Miss Sophie had died. Miss Sophie was truly a great lady, admired and loved by all for her wit and charm. The caller said he hoped I could come back and be a pallbearer. Miss Sophie herself had wished it.
I had some meetings of great importance the following day so I said I was afraid it wasn't possible. Then I hung up and sat there feeling worse and worse. Finally I called back and said I would get on a plane that night and come down.
And I was glad I did because somehow it was a joyous occasion. As we came down the aisle of the church with Miss Sophie's coffin the organist threaded a few bars of "Dixie" into the recessional. At the cemetery Miss Sophie had arranged for a bagpiper to be stationed in a nearby grove of trees, playing a wild Celtic lament. She also had the minister read a passage from Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body that seemed just right. Then we all went back to Miss Sophie's house, where she had carefully planned a festive lunch. We raised our glasses in the old toast: "To absent friends." But I didn't feel Miss Sophie was absent at all.
The sun was getting hot; it was time to go. I looked up, hoping to catch a glimpse of the old owl, but he wasn't there. I found myself listening and I did seem to hear, faint and far away, one more verse of the spiritual as Charlotte used to sing it:
If you get there before I do,
Comin' for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends I'm comin' too,
Comin' for to carry me home.
Nothing gloomy or depressing about that, is there? Just some plans for a long-desired reunion and the arrival of a gleaming celestial conveyance that will take you, absolutely free, from where you are to where you want to be—home.