What I want to say is something about Zora Neale Hurston, living on Lafayette Street, just south of downtown, watching her brother’s business as he struggles to raise a family and go to medical school, clear up to Meharry. That’s not an easy commute, logistically, if you have a car. If you are going by buses, it must have taken forever. And if the back of the bus is already full? I sometimes wonder about the future Dr. Hurston, commuting across our fair city.
Mostly, I think about Zora Neale Hurston living an easy walk from Dr Jack Macon’s grave, Nashville’s most famous, all but forgotten root worker. A doctor so powerful white women forced the legislature to make an exception for him after he was freed. He could live here, in Nashville, and open up an office there on Front Street, what is now First Avenue, probably about where the Hard Rock Cafe is, which, presumably, meant that his office was in the back of someone else’s store.
Jack Macon’s grave is lost. It’s in the City Cemetery someplace, but where? No one knows.
Zora Neale Hurston’s grave was lost for a while, but Alice Walker found it.
Marie Leveau’s grave is empty. We learned that one hot summer when we were trying not to worry about the inexplicable spots on my mom’s lungs. She was resting in what little shade Madam Leveau’s grave provided, leaning against hundreds of brick red x-es clumped in threes. The sweat from her back soaked through her shirt and transferred the marks from the tomb to her back.
I didn’t notice at first. I was busy listening to the tour guide explain how bodies in New Orleans are put in the tombs and the hot summers tend to quickly turn the carcasses to ashes, so that, after a year or two, there’s nothing left of you, but a pile of dirt and some clumps of bones, which are pushed to the back of the tomb where you pile up with your ancestors until the rain water seeps in and carries y’all away. This makes room for more family.
There are very few bodies in those cemeteries at any given moment. Just a lot of memories of bodies.
It’s those memories you wish there were a way to capture. If you knew Dr. Hurston’s route to school, could you follow it? And, if you followed it, if you could put your feet right in his footprints, what would you know? Could you see, even dimly, through his eyes? Would you catch a glimpse of that famous world-walker standing in his kitchen, putting plates around the table? Would you see her as the woman willing to interrogate gods if that’s where her inquiries took her? Or would you see only your sister, wonderful, but ordinary?
If you were in the presense of a holy person, would you recognize it?
I ask only because I know as well as you that Marie Laveau’s grave is empty and that, even if it wasn’t, there’s a way to do things to get her attention, relationships that must be formed and maintained, or so they say.
And when my mom stepped away from the grave, red x-es marked all over her back, there was nothing extraordinary about that moment. It was what it was. No chills. No great calm. No healing voice from out of nowhere.
Still, my mom’s lung problems cleared up.
I don’t know.
There are lessons to be learned there, about how people desperately searching for healing sometimes don’t get it, and people who aren’t, do.
I’m not wise enough to draw them.