New York Times
Published October 30th, 2013
By Allan Gurganus
The novelist needs both a dictionary and a cemetery. Graveyards offer more than your eventual remaindered resting-shelf. Approached in the joyful spirit of mortal play, they provide historic bullet points, bird sanctuaries, excellent fictitious names, and the lifelong source of such sweet calm.
My boyhood bedroom overlooked Pineview Cemetery, Rocky Mount, N.C. I considered it my own green playground — with a few too many white rocks. Magnolias offered shade. Auntish mausoleums guarded us. Here bullies left us littler kids alone. Here adults staged Easter egg hunts, tucking our pastel candies among calcified graves. This melted a child’s sense of the boundaries between rock-salt death and life’s brief greedy sugar high. Will our early love of graveyards make our inevitable return there feel far friendlier?
In Pineview I inhaled my first cigarette at age 8 (my Kent seemed more sophisticated than a pal’s ragged Camel). At 10, I soul-kissed my first willing girl there, then a first half-grudging boy. Boneyard’s stones seemed suddenly alerted. “Live now, kids! Time off for good behavior is so overrated.”
When, at sunset, police car spotlights found us, we’d drop to our knees before any handy tombstone. Head bowed, hands joined, mouths still wet with experimental kisses, we’d hunch in mock-prayer. Light swerved, respectful, elsewhere.
Simply loving boneyards does not guarantee a youngster’s becoming some surefire novelist. But daily tombstones, like fish oil capsules, do strengthen memory. Graves’ done-deal birth-and-death dates let you play History as some tabletop board game, clicking dominoes laid out as you wish, recombinant plots abounding.
Once, at age 16, I got home 10 minutes past my 11 p.m. curfew; I found myself locked out by one furious Republican father. Where to sleep? Accompanied by a full tender moon I headed for a Pineview mausoleum that’d been broken open years before. I let myself in and, after brushing away dried leaves, after bundling my seersucker jacket as pillow, I slept quite soundly atop a lady’s practiced slab. Bunkmates. Next morning the groundskeeper’s mower woke me. Seeing a youngster in crumpled party clothes emerging yawning from his crypt might’ve mowed a year off that good gardener’s life.
Eventually my grandparents, then my dad, and finally even Mom would each find rest nearby. They’re all mosaicked shoulder to shoulder — as if posing for some final satellite portrait. They’ve saved a spare slot for me, if need be, when need be.
If you begin life feeling protected by the lore of tombs, if you sense how countless marble monuments can cool ambient air 8 to 10 degrees, you might find yourself someday visiting far-flung fallen idols gone horizontal. My checklist of such pilgrimages so far includes: Keats, Evita Perón, Yeats, Sergei Diaghilev, Shakespeare, plus Oscar Wilde and Colette and Proust and Jim Morrison, all four taking hard-earned dirt-naps a stone’s throw from one another in Père Lachaise in Paris.
I grew to healthy manhood, then on toward someone appearing middle-aged or worse. I’d mellowed into a writer obsessed with how much of our past we each trail, with how little of our vitality actually ever gets buried. When time came for me to buy my own house in another North Carolina town, the agent described a good news-bad news situation. “Good? The home’s an Arts and Crafts fixer-upper with Moorish arches supporting its giant L-shaped porch on an acre and a half in the town’s historic district. Bad? Thing’s cheek to jowl against, well, a cemetery. Full of dead people.”
“What age graveyard? Any shade trees?”
“Well, sir, I think the date’d run you back to ’round 1757. And yeah, one humongous magnolia. Why?”
“I’ll take it, man!”
I write today at a long desk overlooking the tombs of children, heroes, preachers and scamps and several scamp-preachers. Peaceable neighbors, no construction noise, no courtesy Christmas gifts required. Dawn’s light finds stone crosses, granite plinths, withered roses carved to look that way, then my coffee mug’s steam. A signer of the Declaration is planted yonder near another gent who ran for vice president on the Whig ticket and lost big time. Close by, find several white Strayhorns. They once owned the black Strayhorns that brought forth a musical genius named Billy. He wrote, “Take the A Train” and “Lush Life” and was Duke Ellington’s writing partner and possible lover.
This walled churchyard was blessed with a single 300-year-old Magnolia grandiflora. Its roots resembled living concrete flowed molten between salt-white marble blocks. Its limbs, like those of some tropical banyan, had long ago sent down buttressing supports. This evergreen canopy filtered noon’s harshness, caught snow’s first frostings. But 10 years back, a hurricane knocked one shallow-rooted hickory against the church’s steeple. Overnight, the preacher decided: the cemetery’s old magnolia had just become a threat.
Sitting at this very desk at exactly 7 a.m., I heard 11 chain saws whine to life. Eleven chain saws are a lot of chain saws. The pastor, by trying this so early, must’ve hoped to avoid detection, to short-circuit all neighborly hysteria. Not mine! I ran into her office. “Can I help you?” My explanation of her unholy crime didn’t please her. So I ran home and, within minutes, awakened the mayor. I tracked to N.C. State the world’s foremost expert on magnolias. By phone I described the Presbyterian destruction being visited limb by limb. I told him that the specimen’s ancient trunk was forked. “Have they cut either of those?” he asked.
“Just the left one.”
“Then it’s dead.”
Would you consider me foolish if I tell you how I cried that day after witnessing the murder of one three-centuries-old living entity by 11 hired chain saws? It is right that Christianity’s central tenet is necessary forgiveness.
I still walk my denuded graveyard. Here I intuit stories suggested by short lives, graven names and the very quality of their marble’s carving. Lichen likes certain stones, dodges others. Why?
I feel especially susceptible to the tomb of a sailor drowned during the China trade. I ache most for child brides perished in childbirth. One epitaph runs: “Mother — she did all she could.” For my books, I’ve plagiarized names, like one for a 19th-century lady: “Unison.” My fiction plays harmonic counterpoint upon this boneyard’s ivory keyboard. Each name’s a puzzle I keep struggling to resolve into a diatonic chord.
One summer afternoon, I chose the grave of that young seaman and, sitting there, weeded it by hand, evened its long grass. That same night, a romantic local figure, knocking on my screen door, invited me to take a barefoot stroll and, impulsive, pulled me into the unlighted graveyard next door. Led along the deepening path, I was eased down onto a plot of damp grass. Without the masher’s knowing, I’d been brought to precisely the grave I’d idly edged that very afternoon.
Graveyards, being mortal, require defending, too. A few years back, as I sat in this room with a view of its tombs, I noted a brand-new white Volvo wagon pull along the cemetery’s superb hand-laid stone wall. Out climbed a handsome gent wearing golf togs. Maybe 55, he smacked of early retirement. A white terrier accompanied him and set about exploring, hoping for slow squirrels. I assumed the guy had come to do rubbings from possible forebears’ stones. He’d parked illegally and that seemed fine till he opened his station wagon’s back. As I watched, he strolled along the mossy wall, his lively dog frisky at his heels. The guest chose from among the finer stones resting right atop our wall. With no ceremony, without one guilty side glance, he simply started loading ancient slabs into his very new car. I had a clear view of his license number and typed it into my computer before strolling outdoors.
“Beautiful day,” I said. He nodded but showed himself too busy for weather chatter with some local soul. Then I asked the first question all genteel property owners put to invader-vandals, “Can I help you?”
His car already held six slates so richly heavy his Volvo’s chassis slung what looked a full foot lower. “New patio,” he explained. “These are way better quality than anything you find at Home Depot.” He actually said that. Oh, America. Where have you gone? How much of what is sacred do you seek only at discount?
“You want quality?” I pointed. “Those nice white ones with the writing carved in deep? Some of those are six inches thick. And those bad boys have been here since 1757. Know why? Because nobody like you has ever come along and carried them away. Look, I live right here. I see you doing this. Your license number is already online. Unless you put every stone exactly back where you just found it, you’ll be reading about yourself tomorrow on the front page of the Raleigh paper.”
He gave me a head-to-toe look so full of scald and loathing it spurred me to a last grand blast of civic indignation. I had already turned toward my house when, looking back, I added, “Your mother is ashamed of you! Desecrating colonial graveyards!”
I saw I’d finally scared him. He now considered me the psychopath he was. I’d guessed — based on his class and age — that his mom might’ve been a Daughter of the American Revolution, one newly below ground. I made sure his slow rebuilding in no way weakened our wall. We have not seen him or his charming dog since.
I sure do guard my graves, you see. And — far too soon — they’ll return the favor.
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