Between the Lines What the Undressed Trees Reveal

Margaret Benner

October 31, 1990|By Margaret Benner

THE LIVING ROOM window opens onto a ribbon of grass bounded 75 feet to the west by a rusty wire mesh fence entangled with forgotten vines. Beyond the fence, the ground dips to make room for a docile stream that curls its way over gravel and old branches. Across the stream, the ground climbs into a hill. Battalions of trees cover both banks.

In the summertime, the trees are all I see from the window. But autumn undresses them. Now the sunlight, sky and scenery on the slope behind the trees gradually fill up the spaces vacated by the summer leaves. Now the graveyard beyond the trees dominates the view from my living-room window.

It is a crowded graveyard, densely populated with tombstones of varying shapes and sizes, arranged much like houses along city streets. Many are tablet-shaped, with gently-arched tops that sit comfortably in the afternoon sun; others are shaped like squared pencil points; still others present the figures of angels with wings spread and arms extended. Most face east, but here and there one faces west, as if to insist on silent dialogue. Occasionally, clusters of headstones are enclosed by low walls of stone. These are family compounds, often bearing the family name on the stone marking their entrance point.

Occupants' names are carefully sculpted on the tombstones, along with birth and death dates. But other words here characterize this community: At Rest, Rest in Peace, In Loving Memory, Sacred to the Memory of. Other inscriptions tell even more: one small tablet etched with a cross and a rose states simply: ''Lucia, 1877-1885. Thy Will Be Done.'' Another stone bears the tribute, ''Our Angel Molly, October 2, 1967-October 7, 1967.'' On another tombstone, a lamb lies peacefully above the words, ''Our Infant Son. Sweet Bright Brave Beautiful.'' A heart -- inscribed with ''MOM'' covers the surface of another.

The visitor understands that there is much more here than meets the eye. Children have buried parents; wives have buried husbands and vice versa; parents have buried children. One headstone recounts that a member of the Army Nurse Corps died on October 9, 1918. And in the smaller, newer section, the temporary marker for ''Itchy'' is flanked by a small United States flag, a companion U.S. Navy flag and a Garfield-the-cat balloon.

For the most part, this is an old graveyard. Many of its residents died in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many were Irish immigrants whose headstones proudly announce heritages, such as ''Native of Parish Ballina, County Mayo.''

Only a very few graves here are new. Located toward the southern boundary in ground that has not quite settled, these wear temporary markers or none at all. Their grass coatings are uneven and variously intermixed with scatterings of protective straw.

Only one grave here is very new. The rectangular spot is heaped with the bright reds, golds and whites of carnations, mums, roses and baby's breath intermingling with feathery greens and tied with ribbons of royal blue and salmon. The flowers are still fresh.

When I moved to this house in August two years ago, I did not know that October would bring the graveyard into view each year. But I am not sorry about this annual Halloween surprise: we are neighbors who have grown accustomed to one another; we reside peacefully across the stream from one another, with mutual respect.

A year ago on Memorial Day, a friend and I took an afternoon walk through the graveyard. We had planned to explore; instead, we were dazzled by the profound human beauty that stood before us and lay hidden below us. When we returned home, we drank iced tea with fresh mint leaves and listened to the baseball game on the radio. We tried to guess the attendance at Memorial Stadium from the sound of the crowd's cheers.

Margaret Benner directs a writing program at Towson State.

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