Strangers Tell Me Stories

Yesterday, I was trespassing in a private cemetery looking for Durards and the owner of the cemetery came up on his fourwheeler, shirtless and swilling beer, his dogs trailing behind him, circling up to me, but not coming within reach.

“Do you have Durards in this cemetery?” I asked. “I heard there were some up here in a cemetery way back from the road and this seemed like the only fitting cemetery.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “What years?” I told him probably late 1800s.

And then we walked around the cemetery and, eventually, we found them–Wiley and his wife. They were overgrown with moss and he seemed to feel terrible about this. He offered to go get a brush and clean it up. I didn’t have the heart to tell him these weren’t my people.

He went off and I took some pictures. I wandered around the rest of the cemetery and found a lot, I mean a lot, of Bennetts, which makes me suspect that’s why there was a lone Durard couple in the cemetery.

Anyway, he came back, fresh beer in one hand, wire brush in the other, and he cleaned off the Durard headstones.

And then he proceeded to tell me the story of the cemetery. Or the stories, I guess. The Ayres, to our left, he had known them–his wife had worked with the one most recently dead. And then, to our left, but up, those were all his people, going way back, and there, to the right, was where the tree had fallen recently, but they’d gotten in out. Back behind us to the right was the clear spot where he was going to be buried.

The fence around the graveyard was put up by his grandfather, who had come home one Friday to find his daughter not feeling well.

“Something’s not right, Daddy,” she said, or so the guy in the cemetery told me.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” the guy in the cemetery’s grandfather told his daughter. And then she died of polio, gone by Tuesday. And his grandfather brought his aunt back to this cemetery and placed her in it. Then he spent months finding just the right posts and digging the post holes by hand, and stretching the wire between posts, to set aside the cemetery in the way the law requires you to set it aside if you don’t want it to be lost.

And when the guy in the cemetery told me this story, of his grandfather who made a promise to his daughter that he couldn’t keep, he cried.

And then he told me how he’d bee hospitalized for many months when he was 29 and it was touch and go, they didn’t know if he would live. But there were also a bunch of children on his floor and, one after another, they would die and he would try repeatedly to strike deals with God, that God could take him and give the rest of his life to one of those sick kids.

God didn’t take him up on his offer.

And here he is. But he’s not angry. He wanted to make sure I knew that. And he didn’t think his grandfather was ever angry about losing his daughter, just sad.

And then he apologized that the lawn hadn’t been mowed yet. And said I should take as much time as I like to look around.

On my drive home, the Professor called and I said that this stuff often happens to me–I look like the kind of woman that strange men can tell things to–which I don’t mind, on the one hand, because I was trespassing, so I probably did owe some debt that listening repays, and also because I find the stories people tell about their loved ones to tell you a lot about how they view the world, and I find that interesting.

But I never know how to respond. Not to strangers who want to tell me things.

And what kind of generational grief must a man carry that it’s what spills out in the quiet of a country cemetery at the end of a lane way off the road?