Familiar places

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Cemeteries in the U.S. have a familiar look to them – grassy gravel roads winding casually or plotted in neat grids, rows of rectangular gravestones with the occasional marble angel and limestone tree with a squirrel in it. There are usually two or three house-like mausoleums for the wealthy of old. The lovely fir trees, oaks and the scraggly cedars.

Cemeteries are quiet villages telling brief stories in stone – who died when and next to him his wife, children, parents; not too far off grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. The complication of in-laws – who gets to be with her husband but not with her parents? Where is the beloved sister? Far away, carried off by her beloved to California in a covered wagon. Often there is a row of small stones that say “baby,” birth and death dates very close, no names. These are on the older plots, when babies died because there was no penicillin, there were no doctors near, or there was an epidemic – diphtheria, flu – and they were the first to go.

This past Monday, Memorial Day-Decoration Day, and I being far away from my family plots in Jefferson, Scranton and Perry, felt a need for a cemetery. A friend and I went to the one nearest to us — Indian Springs Cemetery on Alligator Creek in Charlotte County, Florida.

It’s old – 1886 – not as old as the Jefferson cemetery, but it has the look: scatterings of trees – Indian Creek’s mostly oaks draping Spanish moss, the weary cedar types, no weeping willows. The roads are on a grid except by Alligator Creek, where they wander; they are shell rather than gravel, littered prettily with grass and spring flowers. There are many long flat cement markers, most of them in family groupings. Wrought-iron fences are popular, low to the ground, full of all the Smiths and next to them many of the Geraldos.

I got the feeling immediately that it is a lonely cemetery, although I guess all cemeteries have a touch of lonely. There are fresh graves but few flowers, now and then faded plastic bouquets. A few little American flags but no heart-tugging display of six-foot-tall Stars and Stripes lining each lane. My friend and I dipped into my bagful of orange hibiscus blooms and placed one on top of each stone of the Hoffs; she knew one of them long ago.

We saw many CSA notations – Confederate States of America; not so many Union soldiers except for a phalanx from the Michigan Brigade of the GAR – the Grand Army of the Republic. There were vets from the rest of our wars – Spanish-American, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam. I didn’t see any from our Middle East forever-wars, but I’m sure they’re there.

We sat at a picnic table under a gnarly southern live oak – 60 feet tall with a trunk about six feet in diameter, the canopy maybe 80 to 100 feet across. It was at least 10 degrees cooler under its twisty branches, where we sat at a picnic table and ate our tuna and chips, drank our beer, became quiet, thoughtful.

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