My newest book, The Day of Small Things, is firmly rooted in the beautiful place I call home. Though it’s not another Elizabeth Goodweather book, the setting is very much the same. There’s still a lot to learn about Elizabeth’s Marshall County and its folks, living and dead.
I’ve always enjoyed wandering through old graveyards, reading the headstones and speculating about the lives of those lying there. The fact that a family cemetery borders one of our pastures has allowed me to learn a good bit about my departed neighbors – and to imagine even more.
One of the saddest things about the burying places in our rural western North Carolina county is all the markers for babies – sometimes little more than a rock, or a homemade concrete rectangle.
High infant mortality was a fact of life less than a hundred years ago – a fact of life brought home to me when we first moved to our farm. Our neighbor, a weathered old great-grandfather, took a look at my year-old son.
“Hit’ll make a fine man… if it lives.”
Chilling to me – common sense to my neighbor.
Of course this shows up in my books. And in The Day of Small Things, Miss Birdie has her own special grave yard to visit.
Here’s a scene from the book – set in the graveyard on the hogback ridge. . .
Black clouds is gathering over the old fields and the dark smell of coming rain is growing strong but still I climb, step by slow step, up to the burying ground high on the hogback ridge. …
I gain the ridge and stop to catch my breath and count the familiar markers -- all sorts and all ages sprinkled over the easy crest of the ridge. When I’m rested, I pass by the granite markers, from the last forty or fifty years. They are all right fancy, deep-carved with names, dates, and bible verses. Luther and Cletus and the angels is here – one stone for me and Luther and one for Cletus and the angels. And there’s all the worn-out flowers I come to gather up, some blown and scattered by the wind across the ridge top, some still planted in the dirt of the graves, but faded to ugly now.
I get up this way several times in the year to tend my graves—I’ll clear away the Decoration Day flowers long about August and put sunflowers on each grave – big cheerful things—and though they’re plastic, they look so real I’ve seen the birds light on them. Then come December, I’ll bring poinsettias for Christmas -- red for Cletus and Luther and white for the angels.
I don’t let my family graves look as sorry as some of them up here. But law, so many folks lives away now and can’t get back but once a year for Decoration Day and sometimes, not even that.
The oldest ones are over here up at the top of the ridge – no fancy headstones, just homemade sand concrete markers and these white-painted slabs. The best folks could do, I reckon. Jacob Honeycutt’s stone is leaning some; I’ll ask Bernice’s boy to straighten it when he comes to mow.
There’s many an unmarked grave here too – but those dead lie as quiet as the rest. I’ll give every one of them a flower, come Decoration Day.
The church people sometimes looks at me kindly funny when they sees me go to jabbing them plastic flowers all around in the grass. ‘Birdie, honey,’ one asked, ‘don’t you want me to help you find where your family lays?’
Thought I was growing simple in my old age. But she didn’t mean nothing by it, just trying to be helpful. She don’t know how I can hear those who was laid there. Yes, even though their bodies has gone to earth and their bones has crumbled away, they still whisper to me, thankful to be remembered.
Talking to the dead is just part of it. There’s a lot more to Birdie than we’ve seen before this, and quite a lot her neighbor Elizabeth Goodweather never suspected. The quaint little woman who looks like everyone’s idea of a granny has had a surprising past and she’s not done yet.
No wonder she needed her own book!
Vicki Lane is the author of The Day of Small Things and of the Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries—Signs in the Blood, Art's Blood, Old Wounds, Anthony-nominated In a Dark Season, and Under the Skin (coming from Bantam Dell in 2011.) Vicki draws her inspiration from the rural western NC county where she and her family have lived on a mountainside farm since 1975. Visit Vicki at her daily blog, her website or go HERE to learn more about The Day of Small Things.
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