My children often ask what heaven is like. Jamie and I give the standard answers about angels and no pain or fear. His Baptist upbringing provokes him into throwing in a few mansions and crowns. I counter that with what our wise, old Presbyterian minister used to tell us about heaven being a walled off garden – a paradise. I also tell them that Mr. Walter said our loved ones don’t watch us after they die, because there is no disappointment in heaven.
Once, when Daddy was visiting us in Washington, D.C., he toured the Library of Congress. When I picked him up that afternoon, he was wide-eyed with wonder and full of anecdotes from his day. He described the Main Reading Room in full detail. I asked him if when he died, he thought his heaven would be like the Library of Congress. He thought a minute and said, “Oh yes, but only if your mother can be there, too.”
The house I grew up in sits at the intersection of Highway 216 and Rentz Bridge Road, just across the highway from our family cemetery. The cemetery is cordoned off from the rest of a small field by a silver chain link fence. The field that isn’t cemetery is home to a handful of pecan trees and what’s left of a fire tower that hasn’t been used in thirty years. Barely visible in an overgrown corner of the fire tower field is what’s left of an old sheep-pen that Daddy pulled together the year he and Mama thought it would be an excellent idea if my sister and I “showed sheep.”
We are not 4H people, but we gave it a try with one sheep for each of us. Bud and Betsy were not so much loved as tolerated, and although they were well cared for and tended to, I think Mama was the only one that cried at the end of the season. For a short while, though, they roamed around in the pasture adjacent to the cemetery and no one seemed to mind.
My grandparent’s yard begins where the property around the fire tower ends and is separated by a rusty, sagging barbed wire fence that is more suggestion than threat. Although there is only one ancient crepe myrtle that sits just outside the cemetery fence offering very little in the way of shade, the cemetery is cold.
It’s well maintained and there are artificial flower arrangements on most of the graves, but it doesn’t get many visitors. There aren’t any other trees or bushes or flowers nearby. A few years ago, someone put up a large gray headstone with “Morgan-Hudgins Cemetery” laser-cut in black on the front. Recently, a tall flagpole was erected with an American flag that flaps so loudly you can hear it from Mama and Daddy’s front porch. Those are the only adornments.
Daddy always said we didn’t visit the cemetery much because the people buried there weren’t there at all. Because souls are in heaven, and since the soul is what makes a person themselves, the only things buried in the cemetery were empty shells and pieces of wood and fabric. Even as a very little girl, I understood that and went over to the cemetery only out of boredom or curiosity.
The dead in our cemetery never seemed dead to me anyway. Around the dinner table or in front of the wood-burning stove, Daddy told lots and lots of old family stories, and most of the characters in those stories are all buried across the street. So their tombstones are more like placeholders for me, stone and concrete bookmarks stuck in between the pages of my mind to help me keep up with who’s who.
Growing up across the road from the place that I know I will be buried, right down to the exact rectangular patch of grass I’ll go under, is a perfect example of real-life Southern gothic. Like a slow-moving, sticky spill on a countertop, the specter of mortality and all that it brings with it seeps toward me no matter how I might try to avoid it.
My sister Ginny and I always felt safe playing in our yard or the larger hay-field behind our house. The cemetery never bothered us either, during the daytime. It was in early evening when the giant misshapen arms and fingers, shadows of the magnolia tree limbs and leaves, began to fall across the yard that we confined ourselves to the space between the outer edge of the porchlight and our front porch steps.
Neither of us has ever seen a ghost, but I swear you could feel them. I’m relatively confident those long-dead relatives stood in the dark between our house and the cemetery watching us play, or they sat on their headstones, hands in their laps, heads turned toward our house, curious.
Mama was a light sleeper then. With her two little girls tucked in their beds like kittens just down the hall, she slept with one ear turned toward the door. The night the little girl came, the full moon was shining through the curtains and spilling onto the bedroom floor at the foot of their bed. She had been asleep for a while and was awakened by the familiar sound of little bare feet on a linoleum floor. It’s a sound all Mamas recognize: little feet padding down a hallway in the dark.
She had enough time to recognize the sound, sit up in bed and turn her head toward the bedroom door, anticipating. Instead, there arrived in the doorway a little girl she had never seen before. She had long hair and was barefoot. She had on a cotton nightgown to her ankles with sleeves. Her arms hung down at her sides and she looked right at Mama. Just as Mama went to speak to her, she vanished. Mama says it didn’t scare her at all.
Off and on that whole summer strange things happened: a fan turned on by itself, keys were lost and found, lights flickered, but Mama never saw the little girl again.
Daddy is probably right. There’s nothing in the cemetery but empty shells and bits of fabric, but maybe there really were a host of ancestors sitting on their headstones or perched up in the tops of the magnolia trees watching Ginny and me play, like Boo Radley watched Scout, Jem and Dill.
Or, maybe not.
Maybe when we die we are all so glad to be where we are that no part of us has any desire to linger here. If I have a choice though, you better believe I’m going to sit on the railing of a front porch or listen outside a classroom window or sit on the back pew at church, just to keep an eye on things.