On the Hill

Fri, 08/31/2018 - 7:30am

“Summer is over!” was the proclamation several days ago, when the temperature dropped and the breezes swept away the lingering humidity. I delighted in the weight of a blanket on a cool night, knowing it would be a long time before there was anything approaching deep cold.

Then the heat came back. And the humidity. And, to me, worst of all, the bright sun.

Yesterday, I went to the cemetery and stopped and walked around, and wondered how long it had been since I had done more than drive through, getting out of the car only to retrieve a broken flag. Perhaps it was last in the waning days of the fall when so many of us stood on the hill and said “farewell” to our friend and colleague, Norris Pike.

Perhaps I remember that day, now, especially for the stark contrast to yesterday's weather, on the edge of too hot, in many places but breezy on the hill. Additionally, in the spot where I came to be standing, in a confusion of ancestors, layers of grandparents, and cousins in some way connected generations back, there were scraggly trees, with leaves enough to cast shadows of salvation.

Only the day before I had been in conversation with a visitor, a stranger, who had gone on the Historical Society's cemetery tour.  It is a great event, I have been on it, but I am always surprised that people with no connection to this place are so fascinated by the stories told by the worn stones dotting the oldest part of the graveyard, the true hill overlooking the New Harbor. 

The physical contours of the big cemetery have always been a source of fascination to me, with the oldest parts terraced before there was earth moving equipment, and the gravestones brought from the mainland before there was a real harbor much less a vehicle carrying boat.

There is an era represented both in the old-old section and the new part of the old (or old part of the new) cemetery, family plots clearly defined not only by corner markers but by curbing, or curbing and rails, tiny sub-burying grounds, islands created amidst a sea of stones. One, cut from the hillside, had a retaining wall and was reached by steps from a grassy path that was once the entrance road, curving around the hill up from the aptly named Cemetery Street, now Center Road.

Another of these mini-cemeteries, I told the visitor, was oddly paved with slabs of concrete that must have been flat and even once but had buckled over time. Yesterday, I pulled into what I call one of the family parking spaces, a patch of grass between the gravestones of my great and double great grandfathers, next to that funky in my mind treatment.

It is a childhood Sunday afternoon memory, going to the cemetery to cut grass and trim around the graves, when only those stones with the mysterious “perpetual care” designation, not the whole of the cemetery, were tended by the municipality.

It was, at best, baffling to a child with a single set of parents and one living grandparent, who were all these people and how were they connected to us? And what was that beautiful white stone with the handful of flowers carved on its face, set in the significant shadow of the monolith my great-great grandfather had erected to mark his resting place? It was my mainlander mother who pieced it all together for me; Alice Ophelia, the “Alice O” on the stone, was my great-grandmother.

Alice O

wife of

Cassius C Ball

and daughter of

William P and Wealthy


born October 5, 1954,

died Sept 13, 1884

though lost in sight

in memory dear

But where was my great-grandfather and, then, why did we not bother with his grave which was only on the other side of that grassy place where my dad parked his truck, and who the heck was that Lucretia with whom he shared a big, dull, headstone, surely all the fashion at the time, one with a darn yard in front of it at that? That then-mysterious “perpetual care” was evoked, with some vague “we'll tell you later” about Lucretia.

Alice, as her stone tells us, died young, her husband remarried; it could have been a simple story but instead it became a tangled tale which filtered down slowly through the generations.

Ironically, Alice's is both the least grand and the loveliest of the stones in that little family section.  Maybe we should just move it to that yard Lucretia created in front of the monument to herself and her husband. . .

Oh, and that mini-cemetery of cement I was recalling only a couple of days ago, so sure it was still there, with its post-earthquake look?

A distant cousin, with relatives in that plot, said his great-uncle had had the cement slabs poured  because he didn't want to mow the grass. I'd doubt the veracity of such a tall tale but for those memories of  Sunday afternoons and the absolute knowledge of the mind-boggling “solutions” that were employed back then. “It's gone,” I said, noting the grass was well established and — dreading the answer — asked “when did that happen?”

“Oh, I had it removed,” he said, “twenty, twenty-five years ago.”

And I wonder how there are stories enough in that cemetery to hold the attention of visitors.