Thursday, February 22, 2007
Teach us to number our days... (Psalm 90)
My family has never been one to make soulful pilgrimages to the cemetery, and so I have been surprised to have felt the need to do so with some frequency over the past several years. I suppose it is the pull of the old prayer I recite in our burial service, “that and as thou hast given us this new tie to bind us to the world unseen, so grant that where our treasure is, there may our hearts be also.”
Of course the prayer refers to heaven, but there is a certain pull toward the earthly resting places of those “we have loved long since and lost awhile.” And so I slip off to Kentucky for this purpose whenever I can.
I have been told that there comes a time when people feel that more of their loved ones are on the other side, and that this realization softens one’s apprehensiveness — to borrow Tenneyson’s grand phrase — about “crossing the bar.”
Be this as it may, a church conference recently took me back to my hometown of Cleveland, and as it happened, I was driving from the church to the motel on the highway to change clothes for the evening meal. Knowing a short cut, I turned off Sunflower Road, the busy east-west street, and drove up a quiet lane that in the days of the T-Model was once the main highway leading north from town.
There, nearing the time of sunset beside the magnificent art-deco Coca-Cola bottling plant — now a sad ruin with its windows broken out — lies the old cemetery where once the town’s African American citizens were buried.
Like the building next door, the cemetery presents a scene of dismal ruin. It is grown up in weeds and vandals have pulled down most of the markers, and what markers were not overturned have collapsed into the sunken earth of the solitary, untended graves.
Even the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad that formed the cemetery’s western boundary have been pulled up, so that not even the bustle and adventure an approaching train whistle cannot stir the melancholy air.
I made a split-second decision to stop and visit the resting places of Clara and Jack Jackson — she being our family housekeeper for over 40 years. Both she and her husband had passed away after I was no longer at home, and as I had not been present for their funerals or interment, I knew the only way to find the graves was to walk up and down, looking at each monument until I came upon the spot. I knew only that they had been laid to rest in this cemetery.
Nearly an hour later, after carefully examining all the markers, I had to conclude that either Clara and Jack had no markers, or that the stones had sunk into the delta loam so rich in what it brings forth, but which also reclaims everything that is laid within it. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” begins the church’s burial service, quoting the Old Testament wisdom of Job.
Unlike Holly Springs, where black and white have lain side by side in Hill Crest since earliest times, Cleveland was a segregated town, with a line thrown down by the railroad largely demarcating not only where one lived or went to school but also where one was laid to rest. I suppose it is different now, but I lived in Cleveland in what seems now to have been a small eternity ago.
The world had changed, but time had not softened the harshness of the old order displayed in Cleveland’s old “colored” cemetery as I walked its quiet lanes.
After all, here was I, having grown up in this place — yet never had my feet touched this particular patch of consecrated soil. I had ridden by a thousand times. It was on this very street that I learned to drive.
Yet it was as if a tall fence had separated my world from this; but never had there been a fence, only the resolve of human custom, passed down through the ages — most of it accepted and unquestioned for so long.
Now I asked where these loved ones were, so much a part of my growing up, and knowing they were near, yet not knowing, I reflected that Clara had lived to be 100 years old, yet how brief and impermanent is the mark we make upon this earth. “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world: Even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, ‘Return ye children of men.’ For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as asleep:
“In the morning they are like grass which groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth. The days of our years are three-score years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90).
How often I have read these words in the funeral service, but never had they struck me with such intensity as on this afternoon. I noted several of the markers were handmade, some of wood, some cast in cement.
Many identified those who slept beneath as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So, claiming for the individual in death a simple title of courtesy and recognition of marriage that had been denied these departed in life.
I reflected that I grew through childhood loving our Clara as if a second mother, yet never did we think to ask her to sit with us in the dining room as we enjoyed the wonderful holiday meals she prepared. We spoke to her with the familiarity of her Christian name, but I only among the family was addressed by her with the same familiar speech.
The inequalities and distinctions of this life are erased, we believe, in death. And yet one feels that our time on this earth is too important to simply let it pass without some attempt to mirror the principles of God’s heaven upon the earth Christ created and redeemed here below.
I did recognize a number of the markers, and as I was leaving, I happened upon one that was closest to the curb where I had parked my car. It belonged to a man named Willie Lee.
For many years he worked at Daddy’s store on Saturdays, serving on the shop force of the Illinois Central Railroad in Memphis during the week. It was this gentleman, among others, who nurtured my love for trains, bringing me each month a copy of the Illinois Central Magazine, for whose “successor” of sorts, the magazine of the Illinois Central Railroad Historical Society, it is now my privilege to chair the publications committee.
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