My Church in the Wild Woods

Nearly every morning for the past few weeks, it’s been a habit of mine to stop by for a few moments each morning to see what’s new in Touching You Gently Through Poetry, a weblog of poetry written by 80-something year old Phyllis VanVleck and the words touching you gently are well applied. One day recently a particular poem caught my eye because of my recent visit to Florida where I’d spent some time in the church yard where most of my paternal ancestors are buried. Phyllis graciously gave me permission to use part of her poem on this Wintersong post. It’s called “The Little Country Church” and if you’d like to read all of it, you can do so by going here.

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Nestled among the hills and ponds,
Is a church of aging wood,
It echoes the glory and worship,
of the Christian brotherhood

phillipi-church

This is the Philippi Baptist Church I went to as a very young child. Actually it’s not the same church, it’s the one built after they tore the old one down–the one I knew–and replaced it with this modern building.I miss the old church. With it’s tall steps leading inside through double doors that were opened wide as everyone shook the preacher’s hands on leaving, it was far more charming, but that’s the price of progress I guess.

There’s a pulpit where the Pastor stood,
While leading all in prayer.
An old pump organ that played Hymns,
And song books showing wear.

One of my favorite memories is my sidling up to the minister before he started his sermon and asking him to please sing “Bringing in the Sheaves.” He nearly always obliged. A sheaf is the bundling of wheat plants after reaping, but even after I was fully grown I still thought of this song being about little sheep being rounded up for Jesus. It was my favorite songs in those pre-school years.

Philippi still stands there in its quiet rural location near High Springs, Florida, built around 1880 on land deeded to the church by some of my ancestors on my paternal grandmother’s side, John and Maddie Vinzant and Candace and Alexander Weeks in 1879.

Out on the east side of the Church,
Fenced-in hallowed ground
Holds crumbling markers for the dead,
Where family names are found.


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Last year I read in a history of Columbia County (Florida) that five members of a Vinzant family, and probably ancestors through my grandmother, were killed in the mid 1800s when their homestead was raided by Indians, so they became the first to be buried (or in this case re-buried) in Philippi. Towards the back, there are many unmarked graves, or the names scratched on by hand have long since worn off. The first marked grave was that of Jesse Jones buried in 1880, and Civil war veteran John William Cone Senior in 1882. It has a long history as you can see.

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This old stump was a lot bigger when I was a child. It’s a historic marker that notes for posterity that it was used in the 1880s by the ladies to make mounting horseback easier and more ladylike for them.

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This is the grave of my parents. There is room there on the right for Hubby and me, and Mama, there on the right, fully expects us to join them someday. When my daughter first saw this picture, she asked me if it felt weird taking a picture of the graves of my parents.

Cemeteries aren’t weird places to me. I enjoy visiting them and reading the headstones, trying to piece together the stories that lay buried there. As a child I spent many a day, at least twice a year, helping my family clean up the graves, this long before churches had budgets big enough to build a parsonage, pay the preacher and hire clean up services. It teaches you a certain reverence and respect for cemeteries, I suspect, that children miss today. Just my opinion.

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In reply I said to my daughter that it didn’t feel half as weird as seeing Hubby walking through the cemetery there. As a Hindu, he still has trouble understanding Christians and their strong attachment to bodies. He thinks it quite macabre that we don’t purify the dead with cremation as the Hindus do. I like to tease him how much fun he’ll have being the only Hindu in a cemetery full of southern Baptists if we avail ourselves of the two plots reserved for us.

In the right frame of mind you feel a lot of stories as you walk through cemeteries. You see very small tombstones with death dates in the early 1900s. Sometimes there are several with the same last name but a different year, with lives noted of only months. Why is that one, a woman barely in her 50s, all alone there in the corner? Where is her family? You see Miss E, the hermaphrodite you knew all your life, and realize she was born in 1920 and was closer to the age of your parents than the siblings you always thought to be her peers. She died in 1972 and is buried beneath a headstone with the inscription: “Resting in Peace.” You realize that, yes, she finally is, and you don’t feel sorry for her anymore.

And then I come upon a rather curious name to see in a southern Baptist church cemetery. These had certainly not been there when I was growing up. Not far from the graves of my family, are markers for Alfred and Rose Slonczewski, born October 16, 1919 and March 9, 1910  (she was 10 years older) respectively, and Alfred died November 6, 1982, less than eight months after Rose had died. A broken heart perhaps? Or, more likely, he just never had learned to take care of himself because Rose did such a wonderful job of it!

What nationality is that name, I wonder. Polish? Russian Jew perhaps. Whatever it is, that name is a far cry from the Baileys and Tanners, the Popes and the Roberts, Martins, Grahams and Daniels that occupy most of the rest of the cemetery.

“Good news,” I say to Hubby. “This man might very well have been a Russian Jew, and he probably spoke with an accent too. Now you’ll have someone who isn’t a Baptist, or at least wasn’t born one,  to talk to if we wind up here in the sweet by and by. I was referring of course to the idea from a book I read years back (that was revived last year into a broadway play in NY), A Fine and Private Place by Peter Beagle, in which the spirits of the dead come out at midnight to chat among the tombs. But strangely enough, Hubby didn’t think it was funny at all. Sometimes he just doesn’t get my humor. But then he wasn’t born in the south.

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My thanks once again to Phyllis VanVleck of Padairvanvleck Poetry which you’ll always find in my blogroll over there on the right, near the bottom, or just click onto one of the links in the beginning paragraphs. I’ve just learned that Phyllis is ill with pneumonia and is in the hospital. If you stop by her weblog as I hope you do, I know you’ll want to wish her well in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “My Church in the Wild Woods

  1. What an interesting post! I like old cemeteries too. I chuckled at what you told hubby — there could be some amazing conversations in your scenario. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Thanks! Kay, I’ve been thinking on it awhile, and I decided the only way I’d ever want to be buried is IF we can all come up at midnight for a bit of fresh air, have a long stretch and a couple of interesting conversations with the other residents and then hunker back down while “the others” do their thing all day.

  2. Yes, being born in the south will give you a certain perspective on life that you can’t get anywhere else.

    Yes also, I love cemeteries. Fascinating places. They are getting too bland also. Then again, I am hoping that Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery still has room for me when it is time. Stick me in a wall overlooking the sea.

    Scanners. My combo, do everything, scanner, printer, fax does print well but doesn’t scan well. We have the old HP flat scanner that did really need cleaning. There are still things on the surface I think I can clean up even more. Yes, they do come apart, and the end result is worth it.

    • New cemeteries are bland, aren’t they? One of my favorite all-time cemeteries is one I found in Augusta, Georgia. It was located along the coastline and many of the occupants were drowned at sea when their ship capsized near there. One of the survivors was also buried there, years later of course, and the rather long inscription on her stone-slab marker lamented how it was her fate to be shipwrecked and having lost her world when her husband perished. There was even a remark about how those reading these words should harken and realize that they could be joining her sooner than they realized. If you can’t let go of bitterness after you die, then I don’t think I’m going to. (Die, I mean.) But then who am I to judge? I always try to remember that!

  3. Alice,

    I can’t help but smiling added with a little chuckle too..you know which part of your writes triggered that….

    We, as Muslims are encouraged to go to cemeteries too. Not only to remember those who have left before us but to have some sense that one day we would have to be there. Listening to the last prayer upon one’s death make us feel so “little” and “not prepared” to face Allah. On all the sins committed, we are called to repent before the day comes, to pray and do good things everyday in constant manner, to sit and reflex upon our wrong doings and leave them for good, AND many many more… there are not so much difference from the teachings of other religion to Islam…

    At the end of the day we shall return to Allah the Creator of this universe and all mankind.

    Those word you wrote…If you can’t let go of bitterness …I’d like to share here …
    Many times I heard over the radio about forgiving people you have sinned or people who have offended you… the later would of course leave “a definite and remarkable bitterness” in you. Try to forgive them all before you go to bed each night… AND I did try.

    Guess what was in my chest? I felt like a huge, clean football field was in my chest. The magic of forgiving is HUGE and unseen BUT could be felt. Not only that, after going through such episodes, my chest was no longer filled with bitterness. Do what ever people wants to do to me, I am still in one piece … and I could afford to remain calm, peaceful and smiling. Deep inside me I recite the prayer “Alhamdulillah” meaning “I am thankful to Allah”…

    So, from those younger days when HOT and bitterness used to overrule me… I now could live a better life, with smiles in my face most of the time, giving whatever I could (helps) without feeling slightest difficulties or hardships, appreciate all living things around me … the rains, the plants, animals (even the monkeys who come by) … everything.

    AND especially found greatest pleasure with having Harith around, watching him grow, doing different things almost every other day… always smiles at me and keeping each other accompanied as much as I am keeping him comfortable. I really found luxury in being with him and appreciate “life and opportunities” better…

    • So much in your comment, Royaltlady, that nearly begs a blog post of its own. I’ll have to “chew on” awhile, and see if I have something else to say…thanks for sharing your views.

      • Oh Colleen, what can I say about my comments. The devil made me do it! (Oops, another exclamation point, what was I thinking?) The only “cemetery” in England I’ve ever formally visited was St. Margaret’s church in Westminster Abbey where there are many vertical burials. Now’s there’s another subject to explore! Thanks for sharing.

  4. We lived in England for awhile and my walking path to my school bus took me through a cemetery. I enjoyed my quiet walk and was awed by the dates on the stones as it was a very old cemetery.
    I can’t think of any reason to write something that requires an exclamation point other than I LOVED your comment on my blog. Thanks!!!!

  5. That name was DEFINITELY Polish. My maiden name was Leszczynski. If the name ends with “ski” it’s Polish, if it’s “sky” it’s Jewish.
    I love cemeteries! Always have. But then like you, I was really brought up with them. Always went with my mom to tend the family graves, bring fresh flowers, water flowers, etc. And then my mom took my 3 kids to do the same. As a result, we have no fear of cemeteries.
    Your parents have a really nice stone, Alice. So we’ll kinda/sorta be “neighbors” someday. That’s in High Springs, right?
    As you know, Ray and I already have our plot and our stone at Cedar Key cemetery.
    So I’m all set for eternity…………….on my beloved island.

  6. How nice that your final resting place provides some shade for really hot days. That’s important since eternity lasts a long time. I am fond of Victorian-era grave stones, those huge granite markers with weeping angels, flowing shrouds, dead trees, and other melodramatic symbols of life’s end. Another favorite is the Celtic cross. Nearby Homewood Cemetery–the final home of many of Pittsburgh’s famous citizens–has the most beautiful Celtic crosses ever created. Some stand six feet high or more. Cemeteries are the best places to ponder your life and the future. You can read the stones, wonder what life was like for the deceased, and focus on making your remaining years meaningful and happy before you end up “with the groundhog for your mailman” as a former coworker of mine used to say.

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