Standing at the edge of the woods, I look up at the towering trees, vines of ivy wrapping their tendril fingers up the thick trucks. Delicate rays cut through the leaves, painting my family and me in a golden hue. It’s a beautiful day, nature seeming to mock my grief. It should be grey, gloomy, maybe even raining. But instead, it could not be more perfect weather. In my dad’s hands is a shoebox, the red lid taped shut. Inside lay my first pet, my furry companion, the world’s greatest hamster who had put up with many years of tiny fingers poking and grabbing and sometimes squeezing a little too hard. My dad had said that Harry had gone to sleep forever now, and that he had lived a good long life. My brother and I had each pet him one last time as he lay curled, looking so small in my dad’s hands, before being laid to rest forever in this shoebox that we now placed in a hole at the front of our woods. I was glad this is where he
would be. These were my woods; the place where my siblings, cousins, and I spent many of our days. Now Harry would always be here too.
Rest in peace. That is what my parents hoped for our lost little hamster, but the happenings of the woods were rarely peaceful. My brother and I, accompanied by our three older cousins, armed ourselves with shovels and tramped across our yard. It had been a few years since the funeral, and our curious minds had decided that we wanted to know what happened to the forever sleeping over time. We dug and dug but did not manage to unearth the shoebox for which we searched. Our only finding was something live: a little black creature, only slightly bigger than my thumb, its pointy whiskered nose twitching. Excitement bubbled in me at the sight of the animal, my nose inches from its squirming little body that lay on the tip of my eldest cousins shovel, examining it with curiosity. “What is it?”
“A baby mole, I think,” my cousin replied, moving the shovel away from my face. “It could have a disease or something, don’t get too close.”
I roll my eyes, never one to fear the consequences of engaging with wild animals and extend my finger rebelliously. “But it looks so soft!”
Before my cousins can warn me further, a voice interrupts our explorations, my aunt, calling her three boys inside. The younger two and my brother take off racing, while the remaining cousin places the shovel carefully on the ground. He looks me in the eye, and I try and meet his gaze with sternness. “Do not touch it, Katie,” he says, before disappearing behind the wall of trees and shrubs that separate the inside of these woods from the rest of the world. No one would know. Here, I am completely safe. These woods are my world and no one else's. I look down at the baby mole, one finger extended from my fist. I hesitate, not normally a rebellious child, but it’s velvety grey fur is too tempting. I stroke the length of its body once, just once, adrenaline racing through my veins as I do, filling my chest with a sense of defiance and pride. A smug smile on my face, I turn and exit my safe haven, the trees rustling in the wind, prepared to await my return.
“Eitak! Ronnoc! Come quick!” I hear my invented Native American name, so scooping up my homemade bow, I dart across our driveway and take the ten or so strides to get to the edge of the woods where my cousin was crouching under a honeysuckle bush. The scent of sweet nectar enveloped me as I joined her, my bare feet now stained a crimson purple from berries that littered the ground under one of the trees near our hiding spot. My oversized, tan t-shirt hung off my shoulder, the sleeves and hem of the shirt unevenly fringed. I have war paint on my face, and a handful of crooked twigs that I whittled notches into so that they would fit snugly on my bow string. Some of them have little pointy stones tied to the opposite tips, others I had just done my best to sharpen. My arrows never flew, for the string on my bow was hardly elastic enough for that, nor the stick flexible enough, but I tried nonetheless, protecting my Native American family from our enemies, or hunting for tonight’s dinner.
We had purposes for fallen sticks and limbs of all sizes. The twigs that could not be made into bows or arrows were set aside to be burned by our imaginary fires, and the ones even too big for that were used to make teepees. When we had enough, we leaned the rod-like sticks together, wrapping the biggest blanket we could find around them and crawling inside. It was only large enough for one child to sit in the center, crouched in a ball, but the only size that ever mattered to us was that of our imaginations, which allowed us to turn the woods into the Native American tribe village that we wanted and invented armies for us to fight.
There is a sort of path through our woods. The entrance is a cleared archway of branches, boobytrapped with poison ivy and spiky gumbballs that only those of us who belonged knew to avoid. Immediately to the left of the path there is a tree that looks like it had been bent by a giant. It leaned out over an old, moss-covered wooden fence that was the exact height to give access to the part of the tree trunk that was almost parallel to the ground, a perfect place to sit. The path then wound through the rest of the trees until it was overtaken by thorn bushes. The back of the woods was mostly uncharted territory, still needing to be explored. We rarely braved those parts, however, because the treacherous adventure hardly seemed worth it, though we did map it well enough to have a few “secret” escape routes. In the middle of the woods there was a thin but strong tree that forked about halfway up. We found many creative ways to haul planks of wood and strong straight sticks up the bare trunk of that tree, nailing these to the branches, trying to create a treehouse. There was another tree that by standing on a stump next to it, I could easily climb. One of the branches hung low and dipped its leaves near the ground. Easing my way out onto this branch, I would often bounce up and down, letting in bursts of light as I broke the wood’s great green canopy with every jump.
Over the years the plot of land under the bent tree became our grave yard for everything. We began to find rocks to place them as headstones when we buried our fish, our dog, my hermit crab, all being laid to rest with Harry, who despite many more attempts, we had never found. Our lost pets were not the only thing we buried there however. The woods were a place of life as well. My brother and I once unearthed a sprouted acorn and decided to bury it in the woods. The tiny seed was forgotten about for years, until we realized that there was an infant oak tree growing right in the entrance of the woods, a vivid green and full of life.
Little plastic bullets fly over my head as I sprint across our yard, racing for the cover. I disappear behind the largest tree in the center of the woods, my back pressed against the cool, rough bark, taking deep breaths to slow my racing heart. A sense of relief fills me now that I am in the safety of these trees. I know these woods better than anyone. I know the entrances and the exits, where the roots are sneakily waiting to trip up unwanted strangers, where every thorn patch is.
Gripping my airsoft gun tightly, I hold my breath and wait for the telling crunch of dead leaves to alert me of the whereabouts of my stalker. As soon as I know they have entered the woods, I take off running again, leaping over a protruding root, and head towards the treacherous back of the woods. I narrowly dodge a thorn bush, one pointed needle manages to snag the end of my shirt. I hear my pursuer stumble over the root, a few more bibis fly by me, then I hear a cry of pain and the footsteps behind me cease. The thorn patch. Grinning mischievously, I sneak out a back exit, and drop behind a car parked along the street behind our woods, waiting to ambush my enemy as he finally manages to free himself and exits the woods.
I walk through the yard towards my woods. I am grown now and have not seen the woods in quite some time. They seem smaller than they did in my childhood, only about 25 meters long, and maybe 15 meters wide. I duck under the drooping branch that I used to jump up and down on, lifting it over my head to open the “secret side entrance” of the woods. The branch falls behind me, closing me in the place where I spent so much of days growing up. I see my youngest brother standing in the middle of the woods. He is holding a rope, a bundle of thin logs tied to one end of it. I watch as he swings it in circles, and then launches it in the air towards the branch of the tree that I had tried to build a treehouse on all those years ago. The rope loops around a branch and the bundle of sticks falls towards the ground on the other side. My brother is now holding both sides of the rope, then he seats himself on the logs, both hands gripping the other side of the rope. He begins to pull down on the rope, hand over hand, raising up the side he is sitting on towards the treetops. He gets all the way to the branch that the rope is strung over and pulls himself onto it, grinning down at me, proud of his creation.
These are his woods now. My entire childhood they were everything I needed them to be. They were my unexplored wildlands, my Native American village, my battle ground, my hiding place, my graveyard, and my place of life. They taught me how to grieve, how to explore, how to fight, how to be brave, and how to be rebellious. They seem so small now, but growing up they were as endless as my imagination was. And now they were my brother’s for as long as his young innocent mind still had it’s childhood imagination. I want my children to be able to grow up in these woods as well, and their children after them. These woods are what nurtured my imagination, and there is nothing so valuable in all of this world to a child than their imagination, for with that, it matters not the size, price, or place of anything else, your world can be whatever you make it to be.
When I was a child, we’d often stop at local cemeteries. Even on vacation, if our path happened to cross by one, we would park the car to go walk around. Cemeteries were never places to be seen as creepy or scary. My dad taught me to enjoy the monuments, to read the old worn headstones and even how to win at our game of finding the oldest grave marker.
Often my dad would bring along a large piece of sketch paper and a few pieces of charcoal. Once we had found some particularly gorgeous headstones, he would show me how to take a rubbing. Carefully brushing any stuck dirt off the front of the stone, we would place the paper over the worn lettering and lightly rub the charcoal chunk back and forth. After a bit of work, we would have a new piece of history to take home with us, a handmade picture of the beauty we had found.
There’s always a cemetery close by, if not in, almost every city you come to. One to be explored, walked through, enjoyed. Kind of like a park, just without the crowds.
Burial sites in one shape or other have been common in America since 1831. They originated as small plots located on the land owned by the family of the one lost and then, quickly moving on to be yet another thing the church had their hands in, the deceased began to be placed in “churchyards”: property on the actual church grounds, specifically for burying beloved church members when they passed from this life. After awhile, churchyards began to be seen as inadequate. They became crowded and expensive for the church to maintain. People were sometimes buried five or six deep in churchyards before other avenues of burial were sought out. Floods in an area could be disastrous to a churchyard that was overpopulated since coffins could float up and split open.
After churchyards became obsolete, graveyards were the next step. Unlike churchyards, anyone could pay to be buried in a graveyard which also allowing easier visitation by friends and family members. In the late 1800s, graveyards, also known as cemeteries, were viewed as places of beauty. They were enjoyed almost like a park is in our day. People would stroll through with their children to admire the grounds and ornate headstones, families even used to picnic in them.
Our views of cemeteries has changed as we edged forward in the late 1900s and into the 2000s. They’re a place to avoid, only necessary to visit when weeping over someone we have lost. They now make us reflect on our mortality, instead of remembering the lives of those who have passed away. We no longer appreciate the beauty of these places either. Even headstones show this change.
Grave markers from the early 1900s show beautiful weeping angels, little lambs and other detailed artwork. Each headstone and the symbols on it were carefully thought out and told a story of the life of the deceased. An anchor was a symbol of hope and many times was seen on sailors’ headstones. An open book symbolized faith and was often seen on the headstone of a Bible-believing person. Clasped hands were often seen on markers where both a husband and wife were buried. A grave marker in the shape of a lamb shows that an infant or child is buried there.
Today headstones consist of a cold slab of uncomplicated stone, a birth and death date listed along with a name and sometimes a little quote of love. The change is sad actually. We celebrate so much the life that one lives while they’re here with us but leave nothing artful to admire and remember them by.
In addition to headstones, the very process of burial has made a dramatic shift. A century ago in America, surviving family members or close friends were responsible for the care of a person after death. Their body was hand washed and dressed in the best clothing the deceased owned. By the next day, a coffin had been fashioned and whoever helped prepare the body saw to it that the deceased was nicely placed inside.
In today’s culture, once someone has passed their body is whisked away to a funeral home. Funeral directors and other workers are now responsible for the care that used to be done by a loved one. By the time the family sees the body again, they have been bathed, clothed and had their hair and makeup done. The effort is made before their funeral that they still appear as life like as possible. It’s interesting to see how in only a few decades we have sought to push the very idea of death from our minds.
A few years ago, my last remaining grandparent passed away. My grandma was a wonderful woman who was always laughing and smiling. She had one request for her children as she got older- she wanted to make sure that at her funeral, she looked as much like herself as was possible. Her hair was always neatly styled and her makeup was soft, pink and rose shades that always looked just right. She also wanted those who loved her and knew her well to be the ones to take care of her. Her long-time hairstylist was called when she passed, as was I. My aunt asked me if I would be the one to take care of her makeup for her funeral. She shared my grandma’s wishes with me and without missing a beat, I told her I would be honored to do grandma’s makeup.
The day of my grandmother’s funeral, I arrived early. My grandma had been brought into a private room in the back of the funeral home. She lay resting in her nightgown, one of her quilts still lay across her body. Two of my closest cousins joined me for my work. “Good morning” I said, smiling to my grandma. I set up my kit on the counter closest to her as I chatted with my cousins. I felt this is how it was suppose to be. Family was suppose to take care of family.
We laughed and talked, both to my grandma as much as to each other as I softly applied the specialized foundation I had picked up back home. Being interested in funeral practices over the years had left me with a unique set of friends. Before we had left town, I had visited with a gentleman who owned a coffin store in the historic district of Independence. He had reached out to a funeral home that we both knew that would allow me to borrow the makeup I needed. There wasn’t enough time to ship the cosmetics I needed, ones that were designed for use on the deceased.
Tears welled several times during the process but looking back, I would never wish the day any other way. After her service the congregation made the traditional pass by her coffin to offer hugs and support to my mom, aunt and uncle. I was standing a few feet away when I heard someone say “Doesn’t she look beautiful? She looks just like she always did.” Fresh tears sprang again as knew I had made my grandma happy by helping her to look like we all remembered her.
My daughter and I frequent the cemeteries in our area now. A show of appreciation that I hope I’ve passed down to her. On some visits we drive through slowly, appreciating the grounds and commenting on the older monuments. Other days we take a bit more time to traverse the property.
A favorite site of ours to visit is Mound Grove Cemetery in Independence. It’s actually a Mormon Historical site, a home of interest to students of Latter-Day Saint history. Two former presidents of the organization now called Community of Christ are buried there. What has always caught my attention are the many little lamb headstones located there, memorials of children lost.
A few years back I discovered a beautiful marker in this graveyard: a mother, most likely lost in childbirth as her date of death matched the infant’s little lamb beside her. She was 32 when she was lost. I was 32 when I found her grave. Instead of unease, I felt wonder. Who was she? Did she leave other children behind? No flowers adorned her grave as I’m sure no one living remembered her. She passed almost a hundred years before. My thoughts then traveled to my dad and the art lessons of my youth. I needed to have a rubbing of this woman’s headstone. Even if the world had forgotten her, I would not.
I wonder about our future appreciation of historical grave sites when I see the way our tv warped society has continued to say that graveyards make them nervous. Cemeteries are viewed as chilling places, ones that are the stomping grounds of looming ghosts, places only to be visited when we must pay our respects to someone who has passed. One author I’ve read sees this as society’s way of fleeing from our own mortality, as a way of escapism. It has been called “a denial of death” by others. But we don’t have to dwell upon death in these places. We just have to recognize it. Even if it’s just with pieces of paper torn from a sketchbook and clumps of charcoal.