A Perspective on the Past
I went to visit my girls in the cemetery the other day.
I must confess, I don’t go often. I don’t keep it pretty and decorated, though I did try for a while. They don’t even have a headstone yet. When I go, it’s usually because I have been thinking about them for so many days in a row that I just need to get there and have a good cry. And then I always feel better when I do, especially now that we’ve moved them up here to New Hampshire with us. We used to live in Pennsylvania, and their spot in the cemetery was just a few yards from someone’s backyard. It was always awkward sitting there on the hill and crying when someone was bringing in the groceries or playing outside. Maybe that’s why I didn’t frequently go.
Now, though, they are in the most beautiful, little old New England cemetery, that you only get to by twisting through winding back roads and finally turning onto a little gravel lane and parking in the grass. It is like a hidden treasure, quiet and private and peaceful. As I slid the gate open and walked past the older graves to their little spot at the back, I glanced at some of the names and dates on the stones there.
The cemetery was founded in 1855, and the majority of the stones there are at least a hundred years old. Many are older.
I didn’t think too much about them until I had done what I needed to do with my girls. To talk to them, to tell them how I love them and miss them and that I hoped I made them proud. And then, in the quiet, to listen to the words of comfort that God was impressing on my heart. Reminding me of his love for me and for them. Speaking truths about who he is and how my tears do not go unnoticed.
It always feels surreal to be there. Like I’m still reconciling the difference between what I wanted – what could have been – and what actually happened. Processing the whole thing again. There’s this swirling flood of emotions as I think about how it came to this. Two cold, battered aluminum signs. Not what I want to touch. Not what I want to look at. I don’t want to be thinking of ways I can make my twins’ grave pretty. I wanted to be making them pretty. Talking to them. Listening to them. And maybe I should view taking care of their grave as a way of mothering them now. But I just don’t yet. It’s still too hard.
So I finished my sitting and crying and listening and reconciling (which is more like resigning), and I headed back toward the car.
But not without stopping for a bit, for the first time since they’ve been there, to look more closely at the other gravestones that are in that quiet place with my babies.
And what I saw surprised me. It gave me a new perspective.
Back then, people used to write more than just the birth date and death date on the stones. They wrote out the length of time the person actually lived. So if I died today, for example, my stone would say 39 years, 11 months, 9 days. I thought that was interesting. It made me wonder what happened to them over the course of that time, however long it was. And even in my weepy emotional state, I didn’t have to do any math to see that there were a lot of other babies and children buried in the cemetery with my girls.
Like Charles B. Smith.
And under that, his stone has a poem that reads:
And shall we wish him back again
To suffer in this world of sin
Hushed be the thought, be this our aim
To be prepared to follow him
What heartache for his parents, Joseph and Mary. Of course they wished him back again. His was the only stone from their family besides the parents’, so I don’t know if he was their only child or if others went on to be buried with their own families somewhere else. But there he was, little Charles, and when I saw this, I thought maybe there are other children here, too.
Then I saw the Holman family.
There was Anderson Holman’s stone, tall and strong. He died at 70 years old. But as I walked down the row, I saw that Anderson suffered a lot of loss and heartache in his 70 years. There was his wife, Lydia, who died on April 8, 1855 at the age of 35. And their daughter, Caroline, who died just a few weeks after her at the age of 8 months. Their older daughter, Harriet died in April of 1859 at the age of 13.
Anderson must have remarried, because there was another wife, Louisa, listed as the mother on some of the other stones. Like that of little Henry N., who died in December of 1859 at 6 months old., Henry D, who died in 1862 at 1 year, 6 months, and little Alice, who died in 1866 at 9 months. There was a tiny stone that was just marked with the initials H.D.H. It had no dates, and I wondered if this little one may have been stillborn.
There were so many others there. The Rutterfields had a son whose stone just said 1894-1894. Mr. Holland lost his wife and his one-year-old daughter both in 1900. Samuel and Lydia Rand lost George at 6 weeks and John at 9 months. Little Frank Morse died at 2 months and 8 days. Baby Wilmer E. Taylor lived from November 21 to November 24, 1907.
Rest, little son, forever rest
Though parents weep below
Safe in the bosom of thy God
No sorrow shalt thou know
And this one:
The voice of our dear child doth say
My parents shed no tear
Although my body’s in the clay
Your mourning I can hear
That one was odd to me; it almost makes one feel guilty for weeping. Don’t cry – your baby can hear you.
So why am I taking you on a tour of our little cemetery, quaint though it may be?
Well, as I walked through, I thought about the little town of Chester, New Hampshire – a very tiny, rural town even today – and I wondered how families mourned then. I’m sure the loss of a baby was more commonplace at that time, but did that translate into more support and understanding for grieving parents, or less? Because so many people been through it, was the pressure greater to just keep a stiff upper lip and carry on? Or was there more care? More empathy and understanding? Were there extended families living together to offer support and to take care of the mourners? Or did mothers shush their daughters’ weeping over their lost babies? Come now, we mustn’t dwell on such things. Was it harder for fathers to mourn their little ones? Were the parents alone together in their pain?
It made me think about this community we have today. Of course, the loss of a baby happens less frequently nowadays, with modern medicine and technology. And yet, here we all are, still standing. One in four is a staggeringly large statistic. And while our society spends less time talking face-to-face and more time communicating electronically, if what we are communicating is hope, comfort, encouragement, understanding, and a shared experience, isn’t that a good thing? Family and friends may not have been as supportive as we’d hoped they’d be in our loss – I’m sure that is not something completely new to our era. But now we have the resources to reach out to others and seek the support we need – from all around the world.
My trip through the cemetery also gave me a new perspective on time for those of us who hope to be reunited with our little ones again someday. How long did the wait feel for Mr. and Mrs. Rutterfield? For Joseph and Mary, the parents of little Charles? How long did Mr. Holman wait to see his many children and his wife, Lydia? How many times did he visit the cemetery and long to be with them again? And yet, he has been with them since 1890. One hundred twenty three years – almost twice as long as the time he spent living and missing them. Seeing all of these names and dates helped me to see that although it feels like an eternity, our time on this earth is brief. It made me want to spend it well, in a way that makes all of my children proud – loving my family and helping the people around me.
So in this season when we celebrate saints and souls and thankfulness, I am thinking about how thankful I am for a new perspective on the brevity of life and for the people with whom I have the privilege of living it. I’m thankful for the short, precious lives of my babies and for the person I am becoming as a result of their death. And I am thankful for this community in which we can support one another in our grief and know that, no matter where we are, we are not alone.