When I was a girl, my grandmother, Bess, used to take me on these extended trips up and down the coast. We weren’t going to the beach, or out for ice cream, or even to the park; Bess was never that kind of grandmother. We would walk through the old graveyards, looking at stones.
Bess was fascinated by the old stones- the older, the better. She could look at a grave marker and decipher what it was made of, roughly who carved it, and what that said about the person for whom it had been erected. Odd or especially interesting stones would launch whole genealogical investigations of these families, people who we never knew and who were no kin to us. I would hold a mirror as she photographed a stone, to direct the light; I would pass chalks, for rubbings; I would weed and spray diluted bleach on decrepit stones. She taught me about the flying heads that topped stones, meant to fly the souls of the dead to Heaven, and about the hex marks (fascinating, strange, witchy) on farmhouse gravestones. It was, she told me, the written language of the dead, one of wistfulness and memory.
When I was 12, a friend found a gravestone in her backyard. It wasn’t planted in the ground; rather, it had been broken off and transported. Bess taught me that this sort of thing happened a lot in New England: people stole stones and used them in their homes, as flagstones, or (tackiest of all) as coffee tables. There was a name, a birth date, and a death date; nothing else. We spent months, digging through old records in CT, MA, and NY, until we found the grave- in Wolcott, Connecticut, 20 miles away. Charity Tuttle, who died at 13 of typhoid, was buried in a small, forgotten graveyard. After months of seeking and reading and researching, months of poring over tiny cramped 1700’s handwritten records, we had the stone replaced, then cleaned the graves of her parents (Mehitable, Lyman) and her sister (Faith).
No matter where I am, I have always been able to find my grandmother in the graveyards. In her adventurous life, she seemed to find her peace in these place, quiet and still and full of secret meanings. It is how I remember her most.
When Bess was dying this fall, I drove up to Connecticut to see her. Although Alzheimer’s had long since stripped her of her visible self, I needed to tell her things, to say goodbye. It was gutting. Driving home again, I listened to the Last Words episode of This American Life. (Give it a listen. It’s wonderful, and free.) At some point in the podcast, there was an epitaph read out. " ‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch," explained merely as "a tombstone in New England," that stuck with me. The phrase completely owned my mind for weeks. It is, I’d think. It damn well is a fearful thing.
With my best friend and my brother in Iraq, with Bess’ slow death, with my upcoming year in Afghanistan, with so many friends in or recently out of or soon to be in the line of fire, it seemed so exactly right, so perfectly succinct. It is a fearful thing, I would whisper, scanning the news for deaths overseas.
I started to do my research. I chunked out periods of time and used every genealogical resource I could some up with, digging through New England decade by decade, until I found it. The stone belonged to Edna M. Spink, d. March 25, 1870, and it was located in the Center Cemetery, on Main Street in East Hartford, CT- 45 minutes from where I’d grown up, and more importantly, a cemetery where Bess and I had spent hours photographing and cleaning stones. I dug up the plot location (seriously, everything is on the internet these days) and spoke with a member of the Center Cemetery Friends Society, who drew me a map. The lovely and amazing Chion Wolf trekked out to the cemetery and took some pictures for me. After a lot of refining and some serious searching, I had the font from the stone parsed out.
Last Thursday, I went to the Baltimore Tattoo Museum and had it inked into my right forearm. My artist, Bill, was lovely and gracious and sent me home with a list of books to read, which made the day about perfect. It is still healing, scabby and rough- looking; the scabs make the letters look distorted, and the flash does it no favors at all, but it’s there, and right. If I were to attempt a poorly- composed, hasty and really pretty unflattering image of said tattoo, it would look like this.
Trust me, it’ll heal prettily. And it’s honestly not crooked… it’s just damned hard to take a picture of my own forearm, with my non- shooting arm.