Monday, October 31, 2011

Digging Around for Inspiration.

     Boo to you, fellow authors, on this day that salutes the scary, weird and (if you have kids) the post trick-or-treat-candy-sugar-rush.  I am probably the least qualified person to write this post, because I am not a fan of the weird, scary and (and I really don't need the candy.)

    However, there is one Halloween-associated icon that I enjoy. In fact, I find them inspirational (hence the awful punned post title, which I hope you will not take literally.)

    I love cemetaries.  Graveyards.  Tombstone towns.

    When I was a seven or eight, my teenage cousin, was told to "entertain" me.  She didn't want to entertain me; she wanted to see her boyfriend.  So she decided to use a little revulsion therapy.  She told me she was taking me to one of her favorite places.  I adored my cousin, and would have followed her anywhere. Her "favorite place" turned out to be the town cemetary, two blocks away.  If her plan had been to scare me into going home, she failed miserably.

    I fell in love with cemetaries.  That day is still one of my favorite memories of my cousin and me. (And yes, she really did, and still does, love cemetaries)

    Why would a seven-year-old like a cemetary?

     This was an old-fashioned cemetary, with a mix of tombstones, funeral statuary and mausoleums. Thanks to a mother who was phobic about funerals, I had never attended one, or been any closer to a cemetary than the back seat of the car as we passed one on the road.  So this was what happened to people's bodies after they were dead! (My Sunday School teacher had told us what happened to their souls, but was not inclined to dwell on what happened to their physical bodies.)

     What drew me was not so much the ghoulish aspect ("I am standing on dead people") but the memorial markers themselves. In the older sections, the polished granite, worn marble, moss-covered
crosses, tablets, angels, and lambs each told the story of a life, if you took the time to think about it.  Even back then I was fascinated by real stories about real people. Just reading the old- fashioned names--Narcissa, Hiram, Magda, Josiah---brought these people to life in my seven-year-old imagination.  Sunbonnets, long beards, mothers, farmers. Some of this didn't take a great deal of imagination since often the many children the mother had born were buried along side her, their names simply added to the list on her obelisk.

     I peeked in the grated doors of the mausoleums and wondered about people who were so rich and important they could rest in their own tiny marble house after they were dead. I especially wondered about the ones that had windows (who was looking at what?) But mostly I wondered about their stories.

   That first cemetary was in a tiny farming town in southern Illinois, a town in which my teenage cousin had lived most of her life. She could tell me the stories of most of these people, or at least of their present day ancestors.  To me, the child of a father who was transferred seemingly every other year, the idea that you not only were acquainted with you neighbors, but that they had stories. . . this was simply beyond comprehension. I remember going home from that graveyard (which I remember as being at the edge of the town, surrounded by corn fields) and scribbling down everything my cousin had told me, plus a few things she hadn' mind had taken that first plunge from fact to fiction.

   I was hooked.

     I have visited a lot of graveyards since then.  On a high school trip to Paris, a bunch of us traipsed around Pere Lachaise, looking not for Oscar Wilde or Moliere, but the then recently-deceased Jim Morrison's grafitti-and-beer-bottle-covered resting place. I've done the New Orleans cemetary tour, featuring the grave of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. (I suspect that those creepy offerings of chicken bones and rosaries, might be refreshed every so often by the people who run the cemetary tours.) In fact, one of my must sees, anywhere I go, is the oldest cemetary. Often these are only accessible by "guided tour" where you are "guided" to the most famous person interred. Me, I am usually more interested by the "nobody" buried across the way from the Famous Person.

    I could go and on about the unexpected detours I have taken to accomodate my love of old burial places and the stories I have gathered, or imagined there. In the south where I live, you find old graveyards in the most unexpected places.  The south respects history and the dead, and does not disturb it, even in the name of progress. Around the corner from my house, a fancy-fenced, family graveyard from the 1790's is surrounded on three sides by brand-new housing developments. (I do have to wonder about having a "graveyard view" from your bedroom window, as these folks doubtless do.) There is another, a few humble headstones, across the street from my daughter's skating rink, adjacent to a fire station, set back in a stand of Georgia pine.

     I realize my habit isn't everyone's cup of tea. My husband and daughter think I am morbid and weird. I don't think so at all. Maybe because I am not focusing on the death of these people that I don't know, but their lives...what they might have been, what they become in the creative crock-pot of my mind. My mind goes into overdrive. Who were these people? What were their stories? Not having these answers, I often invent them for myself.

     Sometimes they wind up in my books. In fact, my current work-in-progress comes directly from two weeks I spent with my father doing genealogy research a couple of years ago. Anyone who is interested in genealogy knows how much of that involves cemetary snooping for tombstone information.  After two weeks, some of those long-dead folks tugged at my imagination, begging me to tell their stories, even if it was one that I made up.

    I promised them I would.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

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Sandra Stiles said...

We would get along great. I too love cemeteries. My favorite is the cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida on the site of The oldest church. Seeing the tombstones of some of the oldest inhabitants who came with the explorers is wonderful. My current WIP just got a shot in the arm because of your posting. Thanks so much

mary ann rodman said...

Thank you, Sandra. It's nice to find someone else who finds inspiration in unusual places!