The abandoned cemetery was only a block away from our Market street home, a silent custodian of yesterday’s griefs grown gentle with time. It was perhaps the first that Springfield had set aside and was half a block square in extent, surrounded by a high picket fence in dubious repair. In spring green umbrella shaded unrouged faces of may-apple blossoms, and myrtle clambered over fallen headstones. There we gathered violets and pink-veined spring beauties. Soft winds soothed us with airs of promise, and blew woodsy perfume in our faces.
Close to the street and inside the fence, a huge flat slab of stone like a table-top on a pedestal, bore a faint inscription. Under it was supposed to lie the bones of an Indian chieftain. Since it was only an Indian and all redmen were supposed to be evil, we danced on it and made speeches from its stable surface.
Farther back from the noise of passing wagons and shielded by a fancy wrought-iron railing was a single grave covered with the greenest, most desirable myrtle. Its purple flowers reached temptingly through the bars, but no matter how beautiful the blossoms were we turned away for everything on a grave was held inviolate. All but the graves of wicked Indians who scalped pale-faced ladies. They were unholy.
The cemetery was a beguiling rendezvous for healthy children in broad daylight. Though it was austere and haunting, its quiet failed to touch our gay spirits while the sun shone. There were so many splendid hiding-spots when we played Hide and Seek, but when the sun sank and shadows cast their grotesques, without stopping to wonder why, we slipped through the fence and played in less phantom-inhabited lanes nearer home.
Years before when we were very small or when ‘we were in the street and the cow walking over us’ (unborn), Springfield had set aside a new tract for its dead. Close on the heels of this act the city council gave notice to holders of lots in the old cemetery to remove their dead, and a date was named. Father came home greatly excited.
“Sade, they are going to move the bodies from the old cemetery next week,” he announced at the suppertable.
Father and Mother had often discussed the cemetery and its future. He owned the property directly across the street from it so that speculation as to when the trees would shade some one’s house was entirely relevant.
“How long will it take to clear it?” Mother asked.
“Oh, there’s no knowing,” said Father.
“It may be impossible to connect up with all the lot-holders so it may take years, but at least it’s a beginning. The sooner it’s cleared the better.”
“It would make a beautiful residence property,” said Mother as she rang her teabell. Lib, the negro who was helping Mother at the time, entered to clear the table, Lib had overheard the conversation and when Mother went to the kitchen after supper she greeted her with,
“I don’t want to be around when they dig up them bodies, Miz Howell.”
Mother sought to quiet her.
“Why not, Lib?”
“I don’t like it, that’s all,” said she.
“It not a very pleasant experience for those who have dear ones buried there,” Mother said, remembering some of her friends who she thought might be numbered among them.
“No sir, I don’t want to be around,” reiterated the darkey.
“I can’t see how anybody can live as close to a graveyard as you do, Miz Howell. I sure wouldn’t,” she added, shaking the tablecloth out the door with a vigorous whisk.
“Why, they are the most peaceful neighbors in the world, Lib. No borrowing or talking behind your back,” Mother said.
“Maybe so but I wouldn’t walk by a graveyard at night if I never went anywhere,” said Lib working herself into a fine frenzy of excitement.
“Hit’s too scary.”
“Well, when the excavating begins, Lib, you’d better stay home,” Mother said with a laugh.
“I sho’ will Honey, and don’t you forget it,” Lib added with a laugh.
Mother was not surprised at Lib’s reaction for superstition she well knew was a very real part of negro background. Ghosts and graves went together and their power to intimidate was unlimited.
There was a certain fantastic quality about the project that excited Mother too, even though it didn’t frighten her. Her love of the sensational when she was a child had never been entirely gratified and Springfield’s legendary lore of dead Indians and negroes alike intrigued her.
If Mother ever reported to us an incident bordering on the sensational, she imparted to the telling an electric quality that kept our eyes and ears glued to her face. It was as if hidden fires within her that had clamored to break forth, at last were free to satisfy their burning desire.
The old cemetery was close to the heart of a residential neighborhood and its huge shade trees and fertile soil made it desirable property. The ultimate aim was to put it on the market after the new zone at the edge of town was adopted.
The day set for removal of the bodies was raw and cold. A shivering wind swept about the place as diggers, picks and spades in hand, stabbed the earth with their tools. They had arrived early and as the morning wore away, Mother watched from her window a block away the curiosity seekers that came and went. They would stand for a time then finding little to excite their interest, depart as they came.
By noon the crowd had thinned out and Mother, feeling sorry for those engaged in such gruesome business, brewed a big kettle of coffee. Then throwing a shawl about her head and shoulders she picked her way across the vacant field to the macabre scene, a kettle on one arm and a basket of cups on the other. As she walked through the gate and looked about she recognized people from many sections of town. Some she knew and spoke to, others were obviously strangers in the community.
There was one pathetic old gentleman whose wife had died within Mother’s memory, and his hands trembled with cold and age as he gratefully accepted the coffee she proffered him. She passed out her beverage impartially and when the kettle was empty there were still some unwarmed people. Promising them to return with more, she hurried across the lot to her own cozy cottage.
The cemetery was alive with activity through the afternoon, and Mother made several trips. As she tramped the field on her last excursion she made a mental comment to herself that the sad day was about ended and she would be glad to ‘go at the washing’ with Lib to help on the morrow.
The first shadows of late afternoon were reaching their long fingers across the sky. The crowd was subdued. Strange scenes had unreeled in the old lot through the day as unlovely remains of what had been beloved personalities were spaded from the relics of caskets long since disintegrated. Mother joined a group gathered at a grave and watched the old digger as he removed the headstone and began his excavation. The earth was moist and he spaded briskly when suddenly his tool struck a hard substance and stooping down he picked up what appeared to be a piece of stone. As he dropped it on the ground he noticed that it looked unusual. He picked it up again and examined it, then quickly crossing himself set to work feverishly.
“It looks like part of a baby’s shoe,” he said.
With first a shovel and then his hands he dug at the earth while an excited crowd watched. Amazement went beyond all bounds as the carefully spaded shovelfuls uncovered the stone image of a two-year old baby girl dressed in fluffy ruffles, a tiny parasol at her side. On her feet were button shoes a toe of which lay on the ground where the digger had dropped it. There were a few gasps as unconsciously the spectators edged closer and stooped over to examine the phenomenon critically.
The old man brushed the dirt from the figure with his calloused palm, then with both hands endeavored to lift it.
“It’s stone alright,” he said. Then in a softer tone,
“Kinda nice too. Batter than diggin’ up a bunch of bones.”
It seemed too fantastic to be true but Mother sincerely believed that the petrifaction had occurred there in the old cemetery and her version of it was dramatic as she painted in the background with bold strokes. The superstitious digger crossed himself; the shocked yet curious crowd watching with fascinated gaze the unearthing of the baby cradled in the black earth long years before.
Whatever might happen elsewhere in the world, Springfield could certainly make its contribution and though that offering sometimes smacked of the sensational, one could truthfully say that life within its boundaries never sank to the level of commonplace.
Through my childhood the old cemetery remained the backdrop of a forsaken stage. Then, years after we had left its zone of influence, it was staked off in lots and comfortable homes came into being there. Orthodox street numbers were assigned to it and to others it became like any other urban property. But never to me. I shall always see it as a tall and stately wood abandoned to its wild perversities; fragrant of breath; an acre of peace whose hollows held the mysteries and tears of a forgotten day.