Notes From a Native Daughter

"Messages in Bronze and Stone" by Princess Rachella

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Messages in Bronze and Stone

Nobody ever really expects to find herself in a cemetery, sitting on a grave, pounding the earth with clenched fists and keening like an Irish grandmother at the wake of her firstborn son. But when it happens, you might as well make good use of the time.

I can’t remember exactly at what point my eyes started focusing long enough for me to see much of anything at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Villa Ridge, Illinois last Wednesday morning. That is, other than the bronze recessed plaque bearing the words “Julie A. Newell, 1950-2007.” Walking towards her gravesite, I’d only been whimpering gently as I picked my way around graves. It’s weird; I was almost afraid I wouldn’t remember where she was laid to rest, because I’d been in such intense emotional pain that day last October. But I zeroed in on it instinctively, I guess.

My knees gave out on me when I got there, and I wound up on my butt, bent over and trying to stifle incoherent squeals of grief. I don’t know why I was trying to stifle them, because I was the only person in the cemetery. It was so peaceful and quiet, I instantly understood why some people visit their loved ones weekly…even daily, when the weather’s good.

That morning, I scared myself by how completely out of control I was, for about 10 or 15 minutes. I mean, I was hugging my knees, and moaning “Winky, Winky, Winky, I miss you so much,” over and over. I guess I burbled out some other stuff, but that’s all I remember. It just felt so surreal, trying to communicate with her while sitting on her grave.

Once my guts unclenched and I was able to stop wailing, I rested my forehead on my knees a while and tried to be "in the moment," as meditation buffs say. I realized I’d spent so much time prior to that morning dreading how it would affect me, I’d probably made things worse than they might have been. I knew it would be an overwhelmingly emotional experience, but I think I may have worked myself into a bit of a frenzy. Somehow, I had to calm myself down and think about why I was there, and what I really wanted to communicate.

Then I just talked a while. I told Julie how happy I was that she wasn’t hurting anymore. I told her I hoped she was having a good time with Mom and Dad. I remembered how much she struggled to make Dad’s last days comfortable; in particular, I remember her standing at the end of his hospital bed a few days before he died, rubbing his feet and telling him how much she loved him. She kept telling him to fight.

Besides, her plaque also contains one more phrase: “I Hope You Dance.” It’s from singer Lee Ann Womack’s song about going for your dreams, about making the choice of whether to “sit it out or dance.” Julie danced.

When I finished talking, I took a deep breath and decided to do a thorough inspection of the immediate area. You see, Julie and Ron have adjoining plots, and Ron has already had his plaque inscribed. He’s been teaching in Cairo schools for the past 39 years, at least half of which have been as the head of the Cairo Association of Teachers. Ron has been an absolute champion for teacher’s rights and students’ well-being, and people always wonder how he gets everything done. They ask each other, “When does he sleep?”

So, that’s what Ron had put on HIS end of the plaque: “When does he sleep? Now...” I mean, you gotta know Ron to appreciate the humor. It might seem macabre or disrespectful to some, but Ron has always kept us in stitches with his “black” (no pun intended, although he HAS been influenced by 40 years worth of African American in-laws) humor. You just have to smile when you see it.

Ron’s been tending the area lovingly since October. He’s installed two shepherd’s hooks and entertwined lovely silk flowers around them. He also decorated them with little angel statues and pottery owls--Julie collected owls. I added one of my beaded bracelets from Nairobi. Oh, and their joint plot isn’t the only one he’s been minding.

Julie is buried next to her daughter, Christie Ann Newell. Reading her plaque is achingly sad: “Born and died February 25, 1975.” Christie would have been 33 years old this year. And she would have been beautiful, and smart, and loving, and talented. And long-since thoroughly spoiled by her Auntie Mame….er, Rachel.

Next to Christie is the plot for half of my brother David’s ashes (the other half were poured into San Francisco Bay, one of his favorite spots in the world). His plaque reads, “David Stewart-Jones, January 7, 1947-March 5, 2003.” On the sheperd’s hook near his plot, Ron hung a stained glass oval with a picture of a lighthouse on it. That’s where they found David, when he decided he didn’t want to wake up anymore.

Amazingly, the longer I stayed at Greenlawn, the calmer I felt. I mean, you could really flip your wig faced with a scenario like that. But once again, Ron had thought of everything. With Julie inspiring him, he had placed three stone tiles in front of each plaque, for people who don’t want to fall out on their asses when visiting the graves like I did. He put them there for people who might want to kneel while paying their respects.

In front of Julie’s plaque, the tile read, “Take the road less travelled.” My God, Julie certainly did that. We were talking about it before I left Cairo….anybody else faced with all the physical challenges she dealt with might have pulled the covers over her head and begged for the sweet release of death DECADES earlier. But Julie went down every road she came across. She took every opportunity she was offered during those last 5 years, and she pursued each one with a vigor women half her age couldn't muster.

And of course, since I can always find a way to inject myself into just about anything, I took it as a message from her to me. Even though Julie was scared silly about me going to Uganda, I’ll never forget how supportive she was before I left. Sometimes I drive myself crazy by thinking she may have suspected her life was ending when I left, which could have made her want me to stick around. IF that was the case, Julie never said anything. Other than telling me to take plenty of hair care products with me when I left, and to stay out of the woods, Julie was nothing but supportive.

So here she was again, telling me to take the road less travelled.

I haven’t asked Ron why he chose the tile in front of Christie’s grave, but I have my own interpretation. It reads, “Count your blessings.” My poor little niece never got to live, but the way the world is today, her hair would probably be grayer than mine if she had. I know how much Ron and Julie suffered losing their only child, but at least now Julie is with her.

The plaque in front of David’s grave reads, simply, “Peace.” We all draw some comfort in knowing that whatever demons led him to make the tragic choice to end his life are gone now. He’s at peace.

By the time I left Greenlawn Memorial Gardens, I felt strong enough to make a detour at the National Veteran’s Cemetery in Mounds, Illinois. That’s where my mother and father are buried. If you’ve ever visited Arlington National Cemetery, you know how solemn and somber that experience was. There’s something mesmerizing about the hundreds of rows of white headstones against the carefully manicured lawns. There’s something gut-wrenching about the rows upon rows of headstones engraved, simply, “Unknown Soldier.” And yet, just like at Greenlawn, it was so incredibly peaceful just sitting there a while.

They don’t really allow big floral displays or anything at the Veteran’s cemetery, but there were two little yellow wildflowers growing among the blades of grass near my parents’ graves. So I plucked them and placed them on both of their headstones. I thanked Lewis and Eloise Jones for making Julie, AND me, and I guess all of my brothers and sisters, survivors. Rough as a cob, as Julie used to say. Fighters. Tough as a bunch of junkyard dogs, the lot of us.

I mean, after all, hadn’t I just visited five graves in one morning?

Posted by Princess Rachella at 12:34 PM