Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Dead Do Tell Tales

Old Fort Williams grave site, 2005, prior to removal

            I’ve always loved tromping around old cemeteries, pausing to read each tombstone. In the early ’90s, on a walk through the woods near Lay Lake in central Alabama, I came across a cluster of tombstones with a monument in the middle. When I read the inscriptions I was surprised to learn that the cemetery was the final resting place for U.S. soldiers - from 1814. During the War of 1812 (1812-1815), General Andrew Jackson and his troops were passing through the area on their way to fight “the bloody British in the town of New Orleans” (you know the song) when they encountered a band of Red Stick Creek warriors. The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was fought on March 27th, and Jackson’s dead were buried at a fort long since submerged under the lake created when the Coosa River was dammed in 1914. I’ve read that in the years since I happened upon the site, the land has been turned into a subdivision and the grave markers moved. But on that summer day when I was there, the old trees and I looked down on the actual spot where soldiers had dug in the dirt to bury their fallen comrades over 175 years prior. I imagined what the young men (for they were all young, too young) looked like. Scenes of them creeping through the forest, crouching behind trees, firing their guns, giving up their lives, played before my eyes. Their graves whispered their stories to me.
Vicksburg National Cemetery
            Being a historian, I love all things old – the older the better. And a cemetery, especially an old one, is a glimpse not only into the past but into the lives of those who’ve gone before us. I’ve driven through the national cemetery at Vicksburg, Mississippi, encompassing over 18,000 graves including the nation’s largest burial site of Union soldiers and sailors - over 17,000 of them, and I’ve mourned for a generation of young men who fought and died over a lost cause. 
I’ve walked through a tiny church’s cemetery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, smiled over bouquets of plastic flowers blooming from carefully tended plots, teared-up over the graves of little children marked with statues of angels, and thought of the families who laid their bodies to rest there.
A common sight: an angel surrounded with plastic flowers

I’ve stood in St. Peter’s Anglican Church’s cemetery in St. George’s, Bermuda, peered at the barely decipherable words on graves from the 1600s, and wondered at the bravery of men and women who traveled months across an ocean to a wild, new world.
St. Peter's Church graveyard

I’ve strolled around Fairview Cemetery in League City, Texas, gazed at the Japanese inscriptions on the markers of the immigrants who brought rice farming to the area in the early 20th century, and imagined what life was like for people who left their country behind, learned a new language, and assimilated into a foreign culture.
Fairview Cemetery tombstone of a Japanese settler in League City, Texas

And I’ve searched fruitlessly among the graves in Lakeview Cemetery on Galveston Island, Texas for my grandmother’s brother who left Alabama looking for work and never returned.
Lakeview Cemetery
            I won’t give up my search for my great-uncle's grave, because for Southerners it’s vitally important to know both who your kin are and where your kin are. And it is equally important to know who your kin were - all the ancestors and relations who have passed on to their eternal reward. And that knowledge must include information on their burial spots. We want to not only record them in our family tree but put photographs of their tombstones in our family albums. 
 My great-great grandfather's tombstone. My son is his namesake.
 Southern veneration of the dead includes naming our little ones after our dearly departed ancestors, passing down family heirlooms along with family lore, and taking rubbings of the inscriptions on the grave markers. And then there is the traditional holiday graveside picnic.
My Mama recalls going to Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama every Easter after church. Sporting crisp, new outfits and shiny, new shoes, Mama and her cousins carried Easter baskets filled with sweet treats. The adults brought picnic baskets, and they would spread their bounty next to the grave of my great-grandmother. Now that may seem like a morbid way to dine – an odd way to spend an afternoon amongst the dead and decaying on a holiday celebrating resurrection at the time of year when everything is fresh and new, blooming and budding. But Southerners, especially, know that the dead aren’t confined to the boxes buried in the dirt. Those are just the places we go to honor them. The tombstones are monuments to lives – some lived well, some wasted, some ended too soon, some lasting too long. But all the graves speak, and if we listen, we hear their stories.
            The trend now seems to be cremation. My grandmother was cremated. We scattered most of her ashes at a monument in our hometown at the top of a mountain and kept some in a jar on our fireplace mantle. But I think I want to be buried (not any time soon, mind you) in a cemetery, settled under a tree which will spread its canopy over my remains and wrap its roots around them. And one day, my descendants can find my tombstone there, read my name, note the dates book-ending my life on this earth, and ponder whatever inscription my loved ones think appropriate to inscribe in stone. If you should be someone who happens upon the plot, please stop and listen. Listen for my story whispered from the grave.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Stained with Blood

            The dogwoods are blooming – not where I live in coastal Houston, but farther north and east, in the woods throughout the South. They are the trees in my childhood memories. I was raised in Vestavia Hills, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Every April, since 1964, the city has held a Dogwood Festival to commemorate the trees blooming in the forests of this city perched on top of Shades Mountain. (Here’s a link:  http://vestaviavoice.com/news/where-the-dogwoods-bloom ) We always rode along the Dogwood Trail - me, my mother, and grandmother. My mother drove us in her red, Chevrolet station wagon – the kind with the genuine imitation wood on the sides - as we wound our way through the neighborhoods of our city following the dogwood blossoms freshly painted each year on the asphalt of the road. Most of the trees bloomed white, but in a few yards, I spied trees sporting pink blossoms.
            There is a legend associated with the dogwood. The story goes that during Jesus’ lifetime, very few trees in Israel grew large. But the dogwood was prized for its thick trunk and strong wood. Because of this, the Romans used the wood to make crosses for crucifixion. On the day Jesus died, He felt the dogwood’s sadness about His suffering and about being used for such a purpose. So, Jesus had compassion on the dogwood and said, “Because of your sorrow and pity for My suffering, dogwoods will never grow large enough to be used in this way again.” On the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the chief wood gatherer for the Romans received news that all the dogwoods were withering. Hurrying to the forest, he saw that it was true. From that day forward, the trees have grown slender and twisted. But beautiful white flowers bloom on the branches in the Springtime. Each blossom forms a cross made from its four white bracts (which we usually mistakenly call the petals.) The whiteness symbolizes that Jesus was without sin. Each bract bears a rusty indentation on the tip, as if made by a nail, to represent the bloody wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet. The center of the blossom contains little green buds that open into yellow flowers. The buds represent the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head by his mockers. After the flowers wither, the center forms red, drop-shaped berries that symbolize Jesus’ blood. Blood shed for me. And for you.
            Last December, my family was asked to contribute an ornament to our church’s Chrismon tree. If you’re not familiar with this tradition, it began in 1957 at Ascension Lutheran Church in Danville, Virginia. Francis Spencer wanted to decorate a tree for her church’s sanctuary that emphasized the birth, life, and death of Jesus as the reason for celebrating Christmas. The word Chrismon is a combination of the Greek word for Christ – Christos - and the word “monogram.” The first decorations Mrs. Spencer made were simple crosses, but through the years and as the tradition spread to other churches of various denominations, the choices have expanded to include symbols encompassing traditions from the earliest days of Christianity to the present. White, silver, and gold are the preferred colors. The symbols are interdenominational to reflect the shared faith and heritage of all Christians. Mrs. Spencer went on to write five illustrated books about the tradition of the Chrismon tree which also include patterns for ornaments. (Here’s a link to Ascension Lutheran’s Chrismon ministry site with all sorts of additional information:  http://www.chrismon.org/site/chrismon.htm )  For our contribution to our church’s tree, we selected a dogwood blossom. I found an image on Google, traced the outline, and cut it from heavy, white felt. I outlined the edges of the white bracts with silver glitter glue. In the center of the blossom, I squeezed gold glitter glue for the tiny, yellow flowers. And in the notch of each bract’s tip, I dabbed red glitter glue to represent the bloody, nail wounds.
My family marched to the front of the church on the Sunday evening designated for decorating the Chrismon tree. My 9-year-old daughter carried the dogwood ornament by its silver ribbon. “We’ve chosen the dogwood blossom for our ornament,” she announced to the congregation. My son and I took turns reading lines from the legend, and my mother concluded by telling about the Dogwood Festival back home. My grandmother wasn’t with us, but I know she watched from Heaven as my little girl hung the ornament on the tree for all to see.
            Now, in the Spring, the only dogwoods I see are the ones I find on Google Images. But on second thought, that’s not true. I see, in my mind, the ones from my childhood. And I’m back, once again, in my hometown, riding along the Dogwood Trail in that red station wagon with my mother and grandmother.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton