Not Whistling Past A Graveyard
Within sight of the Frederica River, its blue-gray water moving slowly against the marsh grass, we sat talking about stories – collective stories, communal stories, the ones we all knew despite the fact that we came from different places. The particular story that had caught our attention that day was the story of Milledgeville and how, in a certain time, the once-state capital had been reduced to something like a threat. “You keep acting like that, boy, they gonna send you to Milledgeville.” “You ‘bout to drive me crazy! I ‘bout as well drive myself to Milledgeville.”
Today I received an email from a friend who was part of that conversation, a link to an article written about the State Mental Hospital at Milledgeville and its infamous history. It has been closed for years, its buildings abandoned, falling in on themselves. There are fences and signs saying, Keep Out! They don’t seem to make much difference.
A single paragraph at the close of the article describes the hospital cemetery where over 25,000 patients were buried between 1842 and the hospital’s closing. Each grave was originally marked by “a small, numbered iron stake like an elongated teardrop,” but in the 1960s the stakes were removed by groundskeepers to make it easier to mow the grass. In 1997, the stakes were discovered in an overgrown field by a group of visitors. Only 2,000 of them remained. A memorial that included the stakes was eventually established, a sad and cautionary vision of what happens when people are forgotten.
My family loves cemeteries. In general. Not just the ones in which are buried the people who share our names and from which we got our best stories. Any old cemetery will do.
As a child, my favorite part of Thanksgiving Day, after sweet potato casserole and Aunt Doris’s lime congealed salad, was the moment when all the dishes had been washed and Saran Wrap carefully tightened over what would be the second coming of the meal we’d just eaten and somebody said, “Y’all want to go ride around?” The question required no verbal response and meant only one thing.
While Daddy, his brothers and brothers-in-law, and Pa stood around the yard talking cars and playing pitch penny, the women and children pressed themselves into the closest Buick or Oldsmobile – those models generally offering the largest seating capacity – and set forth to explore the final resting places of people we may or may not have known. Generally one of the aunts had performed reconnaissance in the weeks leading up to the holiday and had a location in mind, probably one at which she’d recently attended a graveside service and noticed some particularly interesting funerary art.
The fondness with which I remember those afternoons – just chill enough to require a sweater, bright sunlight angled sharply through the trees, the quiet broken only by the rustling of leaves and the respectful murmuring of gentle reminders to the youngest among us not to step on the graves – is a stark contrast to the discomfort that has intruded upon my day as a result of the image of the forgotten graves of Milledgeville.
Beneath that ground lie not just the physical remains of depressed wives, alcoholic husbands, children who today would be called behavior disordered, but also their stories – their remembrances of Thanksgiving Day, their voices singing hymns as they hung out their clothes to dry, their laughter drifting across a playground. We will never know what books they read, what made them cry, who they missed most when they left home for Milledgeville. The answers are all buried in unmarked graves.
All the answers but one.
The only question left for those whose lives bore a stigma most of us will never know, whose offerings to the world were rejected, whose suffering has ended, but whose significance remains, is this: Who is going to teach you not to step on our graves?