In winter I mostly walk in the park, and sometimes in the cemetery. It’s wooded and shady, and being lower down the side of the valley, winter sunlight doesn’t stay long; cool dappled shadows that are welcome in summer are less inviting at this time of year. Nevertheless I love it in all seasons. Parts of it are wild and secluded and overgrown and I go there to watch squirrels and rabbits, and to walk amongst the old graves of not just individuals but of whole families. Generations are buried here and remembered here, together.
If this seems a gloomy thing to do, it’s not – or not for me. As a child I practically grew up in a graveyard as our back garden bordered on the village churchyard, and a gap in the hedge led straight into the plot at the exact point where the newest graves ended and the unused, unmown field sloped gently uphill to the woods beyond. My sister and I played in the field and the churchyard as well as the woods, and took the path through the graves to reach the church and the village. My grandmother, who lived with us for the last few years of her life, spent almost as much time out there as we did, tending the neglected graves of those who had no-one else to care for them. Her favourite had a granite headstone and belonged to an admiral; she weeded it with the broken end of a bayonet that had been my grandfather’s and which she had previously used as a poker.
When she died, she was buried not here but with my grandfather, in the town where they had lived and where I was born. My family moved; we no longer live near to each other, and probably none of us will be buried together.
I feel drawn to graveyards. I have happy memories of the chuchyard that seemed like part of our home, and even though the people that were buried there were strangers they felt like friends. The admiral almost felt like part of the family.
“This is what I wanted you to see.”
These lines are spoken by Mattie Ross, right at the end of the classic Western, True Grit. Mattie is tending her father’s grave in a neatly fenced plot high up on the hill above the house, her arm still bandaged in a sling from the snake-bite that nearly killed her, when Rooster Cockburn, played by John Wayne, rides up the hill. Mattie and Rooster have been through an adventure together that could have seen both of them killed, and nearly did; courage and determination in the face of trouble have brought them close and made them unlikely friends.
Mattie knows she is lucky to be alive but although she is still very young, she is characteristically thinking ahead, and organising.
“Papa’s marker was not what was ordered. I had to make that fool of a stoneman change it. Some day, Mama will be here. And my brother and his family over there. And that is for my sister and her family. And I will be here, on the other side of Papa. It’s comforting to know where we’ll meet eternity.”
“I would like you to rest beside me, Rooster.”
“Now, sis, that place should be for your family, your husband, kids… ”
“You have no kin. I don’t count Chen Lee and the cat. Where would you end up? A neglected patch of weeds?”
“I might just take you up on that offer, sis.
Excuse me if I don’t try to move in too soon!”
Grateful thanks to Drew’s Script-O-Rama for the transcript excerpt from the movie True Grit.