Tools of the trade, or merely nostalgia?
I want to tell you about two short stories, neither of which were ever actually written, at least not in any lasting format. Each of these stories has many offspring, and they've been oft told. The fact of their not-written-ness does not render these stories unreal; simply without form.
Interestingly, the biographical events that gave rise to these stories did occur, and do have form. So perhaps it is best to begin there.
In the southeastern corner of Rutherford County, North Carolina there is a Baptist Church called High Shoal Baptist Church. Both my maternal grandparents, as well as all four of my maternal great grandparents are buried in this cemetery, along with all the infant and toddlers of those couples who died as children. They are all buried in the same plot. I have only been to this cemetery once, on the occasion of my grandmother's funeral, the day we laid her to rest. My grandmother was the last to be placed in this plot. With her burial, the plot was closed. It was, finally, complete.
For my mother and her siblings, however, the cemetery was not a new experience. As children they had been brought there every Memorial Day by their mother, to clean up the grave site of their father, who had died in an industrial accident in 1945, on the floor of the textile mill where he was an electrician. The yearly trip to High Shoal was an elaborate endeavor. The cemetery lies some 13.2 miles from the town where they lived, and as a widow with 7 surviving children, my grandmother did not own a car. The trip had to be planned, arranged with a friend or family member, along with the yard tools, potted flowers and usually food for the entire family to eat while on their errand. Once there, it was the children's task to pick the weeds from the gravesite, while my grandmother and her eldest daughter arranged all the flowers that they would have brought with them.
Before he had wed my 16 year old grandmother, my grandfather -- at the time an older man of 21 years, had already been married once. His first wife had died at the age of 19, one day after having given birth to a daughter who had lived for only a few hours. Both my grandfather's first wife and his infant daughter were also buried in the High Shoal Cemetery, though not in the plot where my grandparents and great grandparents rest. His first wife, T and their infant daughter, M, were buried on the other side of the road, closer to the church, but on the slope of the hill, with small stone markers that most likely reflect my grandfather's economic status at the time of their deaths. But those graves carry the same last name as the name on the majority of the stones in my family's plot.
During these yearly treks to the family cemetery, my grandmother always insisted that her children tend not only their father's, and then later their grandfathers' graves, but also these two, non-adjacent but nonetheless still family gravestones. This task often fell to the younger of the children, if nothing else they needed the exercise that running across the road and down the hill would bring. And perhaps, it was just easier for my grandmother that way. As the youngest daughter, my mother was nearly always one of the ones sent to do the work on these two gravesites. Ironic in many ways, because my mother, as the youngest daughter, had also been named for this child of my grandfather's first marriage, the one who died. So her task was to clean and tend the gravestone that had her own name on it. Her younger brothers teased her unmercifully once they were old enough to understand what the name upon that stone was.
Now today in these days of Google and Facebook, it is perhaps not so unusual to come across people who share a name with you. But in the late 1940's coming face-to-face with this phenomenon was somewhat less commonplace. Granted, the practice of naming a child after a child who has died has a long history, at least among the descendants from the inhabitants of the British Isles. The British in particular seem to relish the use of just a handful of names, if my forays into genealogy are any indication. What is, perhaps most rare about this situation, however is the fact that my mother's name was neither an attractive nor popular one for that era. It was a name out of time by the time she was born, and a name that she had always hated. But every year she was reminded of just why that was her name, so that these trips to the cemetery seemed to carry more meaning for her than for any of her other siblings. Or at least this is what she came to feel, as she used to tell her own children when she shared this story with them once she was, herself a parent. And thus did we, her daughters, learn to identify and even experience in some ways, the strange and sometimes scary "honor" that was also something of a horror for a sensitive young girl of 8 or 9.