Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Beneath the stones



Thirty-two years ago I stumbled across an old cemetery south of here, not that far away. The long grass was uncut, and many of the stones had tumbled. Wasn't a big place, as I remember, half an acre maybe; but what I've not forgotten was the sense that most of graves belonged to children. Influenza used to ravage the region occasionally, I'm told, and leave death in its wake. The sketchy stories--date of birth, date of death--told by those old gravestones pointed at the early decades of the 20th century, as I remember, a century ago.

I used that cemetery walk in an intro for the first book I wrote because the experience in the long grass and old gravestones made me wonder what had happened here, in this region to which we had just just moved. That wonder led me to read old books about the history of the area, where I found stories, and those stories formed a collection, etc., etc.

Count me among those who believe a walk in a graveyard is pretty darn good therapy once in awhile, especially, perhaps, if none of the stones mark the graves of immediate family, but where instead the people memorialized are simply names etched on rock. I took a walk a couple of days ago and read headstones when I could; after all, even stone wears eventually in the passing of prairie seasons.

I didn't have much time, but I wanted to try out a new lens, so I walked through the oldest section of the town cemetery and found this small, non-descript stone--"Jacoba Bos, 1897 - 1899." No one alive knows this child's story, or even a thing about the misery her death created. I'm not even sure you could discover why she died--how, or at whose hands. Her name may appear in the vast foilage of some family tree, but I'm guessing that this stone--barely a foot across--is all that's left of her two short years.

Man, woman, child--our days are like grass, the Bible says, our own feeble transience written in stone that itself wears away in every cemetery I've ever walked.

But that's not all one picks up in a graveyard. The fact that no one knows the story of Jacoba Bos is enough to rouse my aging imagination, not simply to decry how little we matter--dust to dust and all of that; but also to try to know at least something of what's left here, to try do something humanly impossible: give that little girl what she deserves. And what does she deserve?--well, my humanness prompts me to say this, at least: she deserves more, certainly, than simply to be forgotten. But why just her? After all, there are gadzillions more; the earth itself, as William Cullen Bryant once wrote, is but "one mighty sepulchre."

I have a friend, a Native American writer and Pentecostal, who makes a habit of visiting places where stories reside, places where she sits and listens to the voices in the wind--at Wounded Knee, for example. She claims that if she sits there long enough, she'll hear them, the voices of the lost. 

She's more of a dreamer than I am, but then maybe I don't listen close enough. Or maybe these very words, the letters appearing mystically across a brightened screen in front of me, are themselves proof that once upon a time a child named Jacoba Bos was born here, only to die two years later. Maybe I listened better than I knew.

So here's Jacoba Bos, who lived just two years before being laid to rest.

There's just so much we don't know.

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