Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Family Plot

“This is the Jones cemetery,” the old lady sitting in the chair to my left says. “You know that, right?”

Her look is stern and she says “Jones” with much drama.

I hadn’t noticed her until she spoke.

My wife and I drove the back roads of Casey County, Kentucky in her father’s pickup truck looking for a very old family plot called the Cochran Cemetery. We had come to celebrate her Dad’s 95th birthday this May and she wanted to spend some time searching for an ancient family plot whose precise location she had narrowed through research to an area about the size of two counties.

It was a fool’s errand.

Nonetheless, we spent a beautiful spring morning, with the sun finally shining after days of rain and the fields blooming, driving narrow paved roads and scanning both sides of the road for 150-year old headstones.

Just as we had given up on finding this proverbial needle, I noticed a hilltop with four large shade trees in the middle of mowed pastureland. The wire fence and gate around a small area in the middle of fields of cattle is a tattletale sign of a family plot and then I noticed the outline of a single headstone against the blue sky.

Excited, we drove to a nearby farmhouse. The farmer saw us in the driveway and came out to meet me at the end of his sidewalk. I asked if that might be the Cochran Cemetery on this hill.

“No, sir,” he replied. “That’s the Jones Cemetery.”

He went on to explain that he didn’t own the land but the man who does doesn’t mind visitors, so long as they close the gates behind them.

“Even the gate around the little cemetery plot, please, because the horses. . .”

“Yes, sir,” I assured him. “I grew up on a farm.”

“Then you know,” he said with the wave of a hand and he walked back inside.

There was no gate in sight and the hillside up to the cemetery was steep. I told my wife she could wait at the bottom and I’d check it out. I climbed the fence and walked through blooming red top grass to the summit.

No signs of a Cochran headstone. I walked back down the hill, climbed the fence and got back into the small pickup truck cab with my wife and her father.

“No Cochrans,” I told them, “but I sure wouldn’t mind being buried up there one day.”

“You’d wanna be buried with strangers?” my father-in-law asked incredulously.

“Would I care if I was dead? Besides, you can see beautiful farmland and woods in all directions from up there. There are four large shade trees and a nice breeze that you don’t get down here.”

But then, Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, popped into my head.

In Act III, a bunch of people sitting in chairs in a graveyard, motionless and emotionless, carry on a quiet conversation. We soon realize that they are the permanent residents of the family cemetery. Their eyes are focused far away and they never change their stare.

In my mind, I sit in a chair in the Jones Cemetery and stare at the verdant pastures and tree-covered hillsides circling the horizon. I see the red top grass growing on the hillside just below me and notice yellow fields of blooming sweet clover in the distance, but the predominant color is green.

I notice the breeze.

I notice the breeze blowing through my hair.

I notice that I have hair and I wonder what that’s all about. (A lot of good it does me now.)

My reverie is broken when the woman in the chair to my left speaks. She sits in front of a weathered headstone that is barely legible. I can just make out  “Jones, B. 1750, D. 1801.” I can’t make out a given name. She has the leathery face of a pioneer. Her face is motionless but somehow conveys annoyance.

“This is the Jones cemetery,” she says without diverting her stare from the distant hills.

“You know that, right?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“But you’re not a Jones.”

“Nope,” I answer.

“Not even married to a Jones?” she continues, though I’m sure she knows the answer.

“I knew a Jones kid in high school,” I say.

She ignores me.

“This is the Jones cemetery. You don’t belong here. You’re not family. You’re intruding,” she insists.

“Well, not much I can do about that now,” I say matter-of-factly.

“You should’ve thought of that before you told them to bury you here. We don’t want you here. No one is going to speak to you.”

You’re speaking to me,” I point out, because being a smart-ass worked so well for me when I was alive. Probably why two people showed up at my funeral. One of them was lost and asking for directions.

She ignores me again and continues to stare at the hills in the distance, but I see just the slightest trace of a smirk cross her face before she fades into the background.

I sense others present, but none speaks so I return to my view.

There’s a dog in a pen at the farmer’s house below, where I stopped that day to ask if this was the Cochran cemetery. He barks frequently (the dog, not the farmer), but isn’t otherwise interesting.

I see two pickups pass on the road below all day. Then a John Deere tractor trudges by, more interesting because it is slower than a truck and stays in view much longer and because I can see its driver more clearly. The farmer takes off his cap to wipe the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, keeping one eye on the road ahead, and then stretches the cap back on and continues his journey.

I watch the sun set above the hills to the west and it sets the sky ablaze.

The night sky is clear and filled with stars. I see the Milky Way band across the center of the sky. It’s dark here in the countryside and it seems I can see every star in the galaxy.

We don’t sleep anymore, or perhaps we sleep all the time; the distinction is meaningless.

Eventually, though, the sun begins to rise in the east and my chair faces it without having had to move. It is a glorious sunrise. I hear the bells from the Hustonville Christian Church chime a hymn that I don’t recognize.

It’s then that I notice the lady in the chair to my left again.

“This is the Jones cemetery,” she says sternly.

“You know that, right?”

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