Georgia: On my mind

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The past is never dead

By The Staff

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner wrote that. I’m not sure I know what the line means. Faulkner’s mind was complex and his words nuanced and layered. But he was born in Mississippi in 1897 where the Civil War could break loose at the turn of a prepositional phrase over supper most any night of the week. And I was born in Owen County, Kentucky, where we identify the names of fields on our farm by the names of men a century dead.

So I think I may know what Faulkner was talking about. Leastwise, I remembered his words last Memorial Day weekend when my father’s family gathered at Poplar Grove Cemetery, as it has done for over 100 years, to decorate the grave of our Uncle Laurel who died in 1906 at the age of 2.

Later, our grandparents, Frank and Rushia Green, were buried beside their firstborn child, and we come now to honor them, but it is Laurel’s story that began the ritual. In a strange way, it is his brief life that shaped who we became as a family.

Mawmaw and Pawpaw both lived long and productive lives. Pawpaw, in fact, lived well into his 90s and mowed his own lawn with a push mower through the last summer of his life. Mawmaw died 15 years before he did, but still – though she did not marry until her mid-20s – she lived to see seven of her eight children reach middle age, lived to see grandchildren grown and married, and cradled great-grandchildren in her arms.

Laurel’s life, however, ended shortly after it began. In 1906, when he was 2 years old, he took ill with dysentery and within a few days he died of dehydration. For the rest of her life, my grandmother blamed herself for his death. He had wandered from her in the yard and eaten nameless wild berries, and she was sure the fruit – and her inattention – had caused the diarrhea. The doctor said probably not, and dismissed her guilt. Even so, I was a more careful mother because of Mawmaw’s story.

“But Laurel is my only child,” I hear Mawmaw crying.

“You will have more,” the doctor said, as he placed nickels on the boy’s eyelids, closing them forever.

I do not know if he spoke only in kindness, in platitudes, or if he spoke with the certainty of a country doctor who had stood by generations of such death beds and had glimpsed the future many times over.

But he was right. Mawmaw and Pawpaw had seven more children, including five more sons. Each was healthy and smart, and lived a good, long life.

Today, Mawmaw and Pawpaw have over 100 living descendants, and it’s likely their biological seed will endure until the end of time.

Yet every May for over a century, our family has placed flowers on Laurel’s grave, honoring, grieving, the life this child did not get to live. In the beginning, of course, it was our grandparents who came. They pulled weeds from the grave and helped others in the community clean the cemetery.

Later, Laurel’s brothers helped with this spring work. My cousin Bob, the oldest of the grandchildren, recalls coming as a child with his uncles and with Pawpaw to clean Laurel’s grave. Now, with grounds keepers and modern mowing equipment, we no longer need to come with a scythe. Instead, we come only with flowers.

My cousin Kaye places a single red rose on Laurel’s grave because that is what her daddy, my Uncle Woodrow, always did. Each of us places something, nothing much, something simple, an iris maybe, but something. This year, we were all mindful that Uncle Nevel, my grandparents’ second child, was absent. He made this pilgrimage with us a year ago. He was 101 and 1/2 last May, sound of mind and making jokes, but his body was frail and we would lose him in August.

There are historical plaques for houses that stand stout and firm for a century or more, but I’ve never heard of an award for a family that decorates a child’s grave continuously for over 100 years. We’re probably not the only family in Kentucky that holds such a record either. To be honest, it’s not too hard for us to gather because we’ve not scattered far geographically, and we enjoy the talk and food that always follows.

Still, I’m not entirely sure why we do it. We come, I know, because we loved our grandparents, and maybe because we remember finding the nickels that closed Laurel’s eyes hidden in Mawmaw’s drawer when we were children. We come because we are parents and grandparents ourselves, because we understand loss, and are thankful it was Mawmaw’s and not our own.

 And maybe – oh, I’m not quite sure how – it has something to do with our hope that we, too, can build houses that will stand stout and firm for another century or more.