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