Chapter Fourteen: First Impressions
I found out this morning how useful it is to be rich.
After Mr. Singletary had left for his cousin’s house in Alabama, I put the phone book he’d given me to good use and made all the necessary calls. Within the hour, I had arranged for a cleaning service to go through the rectory before the moving company was due to arrive. I called a job resource center to post a listing for a full-time, live-in groundskeeper, preferably someone with experience. I contacted an electrician, a bricklayer, a contractor, and a painter, and arranged times to meet with them all. It made me feel infinitely better about being here, knowing that I had an army of workers coming to the rescue.
The congenial weather soon lured me outside, almost as much as my need to see the grounds. I carefully negotiated the overgrown pathway winding from the rectory towards the cemetery out back.
My first impression was the exact opposite of my feelings about of the rectory house. I surveyed the grounds with something close to panic as I stood frozen in place at the gate, momentarily too shocked to move forward. I couldn’t believe the state the cemetery was in.
Weeds and grasses had taken over the graves so completely that some of the smaller more modest headstones were barely visible. A thick canopy of trees with gnarled, skinny limbs hung over plots, further obscuring them. Dappled sunshine streamed through the very southern gray Spanish moss and speckled the dark tombstones in a splendidly stereotypical graveyard fare. Twisted vines and ivy grew rampant up cracked stone crosses and obelisks, and curled tightly around a few weather-worn statues.
The neglect the cemetery had suffered over the years saddened me. I noticed how some of the headstones were broken into pieces. Others had been dislodged altogether, and now leant against the ornate wrought iron fence. A few of the monumental statues were missing their heads, or hands, and in a few cases, were missing completely. All that remained were jagged stone fragments on square pedestal foundations.
I also realized that some of the sprawling weeds had even grown over many of the cobblestone paths leading deeper into the cemetery which made for some treacherous footing. My feet got tangled more than once as I tripped my way through.
“Good grief! I should have brought along a machete!” I grumbled to myself, looking around and shaking my head. Hiring a groundskeeper might prove harder than I first imagined. This wasn’t about maintaining a garden. This was about taming a wilderness.
I wandered down to the opposite end of the cemetery, following the path the best I could. I came across the little bridge Mr. Singletary had mentioned and felt my heart sink at the sight of it. The wood had given in to decay and its ropes had frayed beyond repair. It lay in a heap in the gurgling, rocky stream some twenty feet below.
From where I stood however, I could see a hint of the grand monument on the other side through the trees. With a reverent awe, I wondered again who could possibly be buried there. The white crypt rose above a line of dense brush, revealing the telltale sculptures. Two angels wept on either side of a third who, sword in hand, looked to heaven with a triumphant expression. An elaborate circle of stone flowers arched over their heads like a white-washed rainbow. Its beauty and substance touched me with unexpected emotion and made me look at the entire cemetery in a new light.
Every gray granite monument and marble carving became exquisite works of art. I read each inscription and discovered some of the sweetest odes ever written. These were real people lying here who were once very loved and missed terribly.
There were symbols on some of the stones I didn’t understand, but others I did: weeping willow trees signified sadness and loss; angel babies, doves, and lambs represented children now residing in heaven. There were draped urns and drawn curtains telling of a life come to an end. I saw numerous winged skulls of various kinds depicting the departing souls of the dead. It may have appeared gruesome to some, but to me they were beautiful.
I took the time to read the names of the people buried and the dates recording the span of their lives. Some were just children, I found. Some of the people had lived incredibly long lives while others had succumbed to illness. A few of the women had died in childbirth; some mothers’ little babies lay beside them.
I came across the graves of soldiers among a patch of oak trees. A few were from the Civil War, but there were some soldiers from the World Wars too. I wondered which one of these men my father had known and visited regularly.
In some of the more crowded areas, the graves seemed to overlap. I saw that lots of stones were crooked, some were unreadable, and many others were just plain without any inscriptions visible at all. Some graves were marked with large bed-sized slabs of stone, while others had towering obelisks. Statues stood here and there, rising above the grassy weeds. There were a few life-sized angels and other religious figures I couldn‘t begin to name. No doubt they were the Catholic graves. There were some statues on graves that didn’t look very monumental to me and could have adorned anyone’s front yard.
I thought about the vandals who stole them and my skin crawled with revulsion. I vowed to protect them and decided right then and there I would indeed invest in a gun and take any security measures I could. Maybe I’d get a big dog too.
All at once, I fell in love with the ancient people entrusted into my care. I fell in love with their beautiful, neglected graves, the little cobblestone paths, the quintessential babbling brook which ran through the property, and especially, the old Gothic rectory--my new home.
I looked around now and saw splattering of beautiful, rich color. Wildflowers were blooming in abundance around most of the graves, filling with life, an otherwise bleak, gray stone landscape.
I started to laugh out loud as an idea came to mind. No one visited these graves anymore. No one placed flowers there, but the overgrowth had taken upon itself to pay homage to these forgotten souls. Who was I to have them uprooted for the sake of neatness? I decided right then and there, the trees, the flowers, the ivy and vines, all the grasses, and the graves themselves could all exist in natural harmony. There was still some tidying up to do. Of course the paths would have to be cleared away and some of the dead grasses, fallen tree limbs, and run-of-the-mill yard debris would have to be taken up, but that was all I wanted done out here. That scaled-back version of landscaping should appeal to my new groundskeeper, I thought.
My cell phone rang. Thinking it was most likely a contractor returning my call, I was pleasantly surprised to see it was Marco ringing me.
“Hello!” I said with an audible exuberance. I bent to pluck up a wildflower by my feet.
“Hello yourself. Are you ready to move in with me yet?” he asked outright. He actually sounded serious.
I laughed. “No, ’fraid not. I’m getting used to it here already,” I responded. “It feels right.”
I heard Marco stifle a gasp. It sounded like he was choking for a split second, as if he had just taken a sip of coffee when I had said that.
“You’re kidding? Right? I assumed you would be calling me, sobbing in despair and regret by now.”
His arrogance made me proud I was proving him wrong.
“I’m working things out. The place just needs a little TLC, that’s all. I’ve already arranged for a maid service to come by and I have an appointment with a local contractor tomorrow to talk about renovations. I have some good ideas. I think this place will look fabulous when I’m all through.”
Marco sighed. “I can imagine it must be a little run down to say the least.”
I glanced at a patch of weeds as tall as I was to my left. “Oh, I don’t know. I bet you can’t.” I straightened up and made my way back towards the rectory. “Why didn’t you tell me the groundskeeper was a hundred years old with a bad hip?”
There was a slight pause, and then Marco chuckled low. “I didn’t know,” he said in his defense. “Truly. I got the contact number from the City Council member I spoke with.” There was another pause. Then: “Mya, doesn’t this say something to you?”
I reached up and pushed my hair back. It was getting warmer and windier as the day progressed and looked like there were storms brewing out on the horizon.
“I don’t know what you mean, Marco,” I told him, irritated. Instead of being happy for me, he seemed disappointed that I wasn’t miserable, and that pissed me off. “What is what supposed to be saying?”
“Umm, that maybe you need to rethink your decision. Maybe trying to make a cemetery your home wasn’t such a good idea. Why are you wasting your money in this place? What’s so special about it? Have you figured that out yet?”
I scowled at the phone in my hands. “Okay. No. I haven’t, but I’ve been here for a whole morning.” I turned and glanced in the direction of the broken bridge. “Something is here though. It’s just waiting to be discovered. I can feel it.” I took a deep breath. “Look, I need you to do me a favor. I don’t have my computer set up yet otherwise, I wouldn’t ask.”
“Mya!” Marco said my name almost as if he were scolding me. “You know you need only ask. I’ll do anything for you.”
I warmed up to him again at that.
“Could you see if you can find some online church records? Or anything resembling the church records even. I still think my folks might have been wed here, but I don’t know why they would have chosen an Episcopalian church. Neither one was Episcopalian. Anyway, I’m also thinking I may have relatives buried here too. The old groundskeeper said as much, but that still doesn’t have the sentimental element I’m looking for. I’m just curious. Maybe instead of meaning sentimental, he meant emotional. Are they basically the same things?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Marco said with a sigh of his own.
I was almost to the house now. I checked my watch. The maid service was due to arrive any minute now.
“This is a good-sized piece of land,” I mumbled. “So I know it wouldn’t do me any good to just go looking for graves. I’d probably get lost. Especially with the cemetery in its current state.”
“I’m not even going to ask,” Marco replied, sounding smug nonetheless. “Listen, I actually called to tell you I’ll be able to come up Thursday now instead of the two weeks I had originally told you.”
“Oh,” I said and cursed mentally. I knew he’d just hound me more about selling Idlewild after seeing it in its present state.
“Silly me. I thought that bit of news might cheer you up,” Marco said, his tone conveying his disappointment.
“Marco, I’m sorry,” I apologized. “It does, really. You know I can’t wait to see you again. I miss you already. It’s just that in no way shape or form am I going to be set up to receive visitors by Thursday and I wanted to have a little more time to fix things up before you see them for the first time. I want you to look around and fall in love with the place just like I have--”
“Excuse me?” Marco interrupted me, obviously alarmed. “What do you mean you’ve fallen in love with it? It’s a cemetery, Mya. Your backyard is full of rotting bones.”
I took a deep, steadying breath to keep my voice level and tightened my grip around my phone to keep from flinging it into the weeds.
“They’re not rotting bones! They are people damn it! They were part of a family and they were loved. This is a very beautiful and historical place, Marco. Of course you would write it off as just a graveyard full of bones. You only see the obvious, but I can see beauty in lots of things other people don’t. I appreciate the shape of a tree or the play of a shadow on a stone. There’s color and life everywhere here if you only take the time to really look at it!”
Marco groaned, clearly frustrated.
“Please don’t get defensive, baby,” he said to placate me. “I’m sure it is beautiful…in a way. It’s sitting in the middle of some of the most scenic townships on the eastern seaboard.”
I stopped in my tracks and put my hand on my hip. “Oh my god! You’re still looking at it as a piece of real estate!” I yelled into the phone. “I told you a hundred times now, I’m not selling! This is my home now! Get used to the idea! I have!”
I stomped my way to the front door of the rectory. My home. It struck me how sincere I was about that now. I knew in my heart I had truly meant it.
“All right. You caught me,” Marco responded quietly. He didn’t sound quite so condescending now. “I have to admit, I’m still hoping you’ll change your mind and give up on the place. As it is, I just got word this morning that the penthouse suite across from mine has become available. I even talked to the owner and asked if he could delay listing it until you could see it. I know if you did, you would sell your cemetery in a New York minute.”
I sighed with exasperation. He just didn’t get it. “Look, I have people coming this way,” I told Marco, hearing car doors opening and closing. I was hoping they’d be the cleaning service. “I have to go.”
“Mya! Wait! I’m sorry I keep pressing the issue. That’s just the attorney in me. I just want you close to me. I miss you terribly already and can’t stop thinking about you. Will you call me later tonight when things quiet down? I promise I’ll be good.”
I knew he just wanted to lecture me some more. I sighed heavily into the phone as if it was the biggest imposition imaginable.
“Yeah, I’ll call you later,” I agreed with an impatient tone. I wanted him to know he’d pissed me off royally this time.
From the sound of his sigh, he knew.
“Okay. Think about the penthouse though. Just think about it.”
“Good-bye, my lovely. I’ll talk to you tonight. Remember, I love you.”
Before he could sneak in another word, I hit the disconnect button and turned to face the group of ladies bustling towards me with armfuls of mops and dusters and brooms.
“Good morning!” I greeted them, throwing open the front door. “Right this way!”