I had to get into my middle-grade mind when I wrote a scene for my current work-in-progress about visiting a cemetery. I thought about cemeteries I visited at that age – one that is most vivid in my memory is Round Lake cemetery, not far from our lake cabin. My sister and next-cabin friends hiked around the lake in the summer and one afternoon we stopped at the small, clapboard church nestled in a grove of pines, its fenced-in cemetery stretching out back to the edge of the woods.
It felt spooky to me, and forbidden. After all, it was fenced in, which meant that only certain people should go inside – we had no business there. The breeze sighed through the pine needles, sounding like a whispered warning. Still, it was sunny and warm and I wasn’t alone, so I felt a tiny bit secure. The motors of the speedboats and fishing boats droned in the distance. The occasional car drove past, prompting my sister to order us behind the old, rough-barked trees. The living weren’t too far away, but here the quiet was an unsettling one.
Some of the headstones dated back to the 1800s – the moss and lichen made the names and dates hard to read and those who were tasked with tending the graves were probably buried here as well. More unsettling than the old headstones were the recent burials marked by freshly-turned earth, barely-wilted flowers, and shoe prints parading around the perimeter. I wanted to get out before someone rose from the dead and grabbed me by my ankles.
Fast-forward some 40 years. My fear has turned to fascination. I visit cemeteries when I travel. I’m not morbid or obsessed with the dead, but cemeteries have bits and pieces of stories that make me wonder. Why did William only live to the age of ten? Did Katherine and Michael have a happy marriage? What is the story behind the man who is buried outside of the fenced-in graveyard?
In September, on the anniversary of my father’s passing, I visited the grave of his father, William Hicks, in northern Minnesota. His is a small, reddish-brown stone, with just his name and the years of his life. I never knew him, but from the stories I’ve heard, he was so much more than anyone would think, looking at his modest, quiet marker. I felt proud to be his granddaughter, and I wanted to tell him of his rich, royal heritage – something I’m sure he never knew. I felt sad leaving the cemetery, like I was leaving him behind, alone and forgotten. But he’s not, because I am here, and his stories are a part of me now.