Sunday, November 25, 2012


I doubt that most readers observed Thanksgiving by visiting a cemetery, but it seemed a meet time for me to visit Ellis Cemetery in Franklinton, Louisiana, where most of my relatives are buried. I wondered if the cemetery had been named after my Grandfather Paul Greenlaw’s middle name, Ellis. Some local citizens believed that his initials, P.E.G., indicated that he’d be prosperous (which he became) because the bearer of a name having initials that spell another word will inevitably become wealthy. Such are the superstitious countrynisms of a small town in southeast Louisiana where so many of my recent ancestors lived and died.

The day was sunny, one of those halcyon days typical of autumn in Louisiana. I’d only been in the cemetery five times or so, but I knew the exact location of the “old” section of grave sites and recognized the plot immediately. When we turned onto the side road leading to the Greenlaw family plot, I glimpsed a profusion of pink camellias in a tall tree beside the gravestones. My first thought was that my relatives’ remains had greatly enriched the soil near the tree, causing it to bear such beautiful blossoms at this time of year. There they were – the headstones of my grandfather, grandmother, mother, father, and one of my younger brothers – and across the road the stones of my great-grandfather, great-grandmother, and one of my great-uncles. The stones represented a gallery of professions that included a poet, a physician, a lumber baron, a Ford dealer, a draftsman, and domestics like my mother whose stone bore the legend: “She was a real wife and mother.”

Cemeteries can be sad places, but as I stood in the bright November sunlight, I began to feel connectedness and peace, and a line from one of my funeral homilies came to me: “They go to the father, and they remain with us.” Even the great-grandparents, whom I never knew but whose stories I had heard many times, were with me, “in still small accents whispering from the ground…a grateful earnest of eternal peace…” (Gray’s “Elegy Written In A Country Graveyard”).

I enjoyed one of those peak moments when communication comes from a source beyond and was strengthened by their spiritual presence. For perhaps thirty minutes, I walked among my antecedents, noting that their headstones needed cleaning or that I should preserve the inscriptions in rubbings. This is a process where butcher paper is taped to the headstones with masking tape and charcoal or crayon is rubbed over the stone to make the etched lines appear without the engravings being touched by the charcoal or crayon. When the paper is removed, all the words appear just as they were initially etched into the stone.

I also noted that the women in the family, except for my mother who died at the age of 69, lived 84 – 88 years. This fact heightened my good mood for that kind of longevity could mean six – ten more years of fruitful living for me on this earth. When I returned to New Iberia, I re-read the poem I’d written about Great-Grandmother Greenlaw (who also wrote poetry) after seeing her gravestone for the first time. This is an excerpt from that poem, “Resurrection of the Word,” taken from my first published book of poetry, Afternoons in Oaxaca:

“...Now in the remembered scent of jasmine,
bees buzz around her headstone,
I look up at the winter trees,
great filigrees of ruin
hovering over her grave,
and I think:
words do not end,
words spill out,
making a poem in her soil,
thoughts emerge from another world,
the door to the tomb
falls open with a grating sound,
and the Spring of the year, curiously,
fancies itself reborn.
I did not urge her resurrection,
it was an old rebellion,
roots gnaw deep,
above, the stone is cracked,
and insects linger between deeply-etched lines
about the One Whom None Can Hinder.
Beneath, her hollow eyes do not see me,
but her heart burns, a firebox of words,
grave poet of the missionary senses,
Great-grandmother Dora Runnels,
mapping her slow advances in poetry
  in me."

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