Writing, like life, is funny at times and wrong turns often take you to just where you need to go. Today was a perfect example of this. For the week my role in life has been that of a taxi driver ferrying Lisa to Meredith College where she is teaching an AP Calculus workshop and transporting Peyton to her engineering camp at NC State. Meggie is sweltering somewhere in the woods at Girl Scout Camp. So for the past two days, we awoke, ate breakfast, roused Peyton from her slumber, dressed, and then drove to Meredith to drop Lisa off. Peyton and I have then proceeded to find a place for her to eat breakfast and kill the hour and a half before her camp began. I must confess that apparently I’m part Hobbit because I have partaken of a second breakfast at this point. Once Peyton was safely away at her camp, I found myself with time to kill. Time that has consisted of trying to find a safe place to write and not melt in the heat of day in the South. Being the more adventuresome eater of the family, I have also enjoyed exploring the food scene of Raleigh. It’s worth your time to investigate if you’re ever in the area. For me, it hasn’ been the hardest of weeks.
Today, I had decided to write during the cooler morning and then visit the NC Museum of Natural Science during the afternoon. My family will quickly point out that I have the directional sense of an amoeba trapped in a whirlpool. As a result, the GPS function of my phone has become invaluable and I must say that I believe me and Siri may actually start to like each other. Since I had a general direction in mind I waited until I had finished talking to Lisa during her lunch break to kindly ask Siri for directions. By kindly ask, I mean to scream at the top of my lungs because the Apple Execs failed to consider Southern when they programed the iPhone’s evil, yet melodious personality. Needless to say, she can’t understand a word I say. Most of the time I simply type in the address of the location. Not wanting to break the law and possibly my neck by typing and driving, I pulled into the first random parking lot I could find that didn’t resemble something from a horror movie. Little did I expect to find a gem of a spot to spend a hot summer afternoon. With spaces full except for those in the very back of the lot, my search for a safe area to communicate with Siri led me to discover the Historic Oberlin Village Cemetery. According to the historical marker, Raleigh contains four known cemeteries for African Americans that date back to the Civil War area. Deeded to the citizens of Oberlin Village in 1873, this cemetery was one of the four. Oral tradition states that this cemetery contains the remains of both slaves and freedman who impacted he Raleigh area.
The Oberlin community has been so thoroughly assimilated into the urban landscape of Raleigh that during the countless times I had driven on Oberlin Road, I never considered that it had once housed a vibrant community separate from the rest of the city. Seeing the ancient, crumbling grave markers extending off into a grove of trees, I parked the car and investigated.
Nestled within the hustle-and-bustle of the state capital, the cemetery sat amid a grove of pine trees, scrub oaks, and magnolias, typical for a southern forest on the border between the piedmont and the coastal plain. Situated beside a community fitness center pool, I felt as if I had stepped into a different world. While I could hear the sounds of kids at play in the indoor pool, I doubt if they were aware of the history that could be found mere feet from their recreational area. Outside of the few modern monuments erected to honor the dead by their known descendants, the site bore little resemblance to the cemeteries with their well ordered tombstones that I have visited in my lifetime. That was not surprising given the occupants of this hallowed ground. Slaves and freedmen of the South had little in the ways of literacy and even less in the ways of wealth. Their graves were often unmarked since the crude wood crosses that once served as headstones had long since rotted away. An eroded indention in the ground was all that reminded us that people once gathered around a freshly dug grave to both mourn and honor a life that was no longer with them.
Some graves had retained their markers and studded throughout the cemetery were large, flat rocks that served the role of a more permanent marker. However, all vestiges of the person interred beneath the rocks were lost for they contained no inscriptions to tell later generations the identity of the ones who slept eternally beneath their silent vigil.
Outside of the pitiful few marked graves, the cemetery was occupied by the unknowns. There was nothing to tell me who they were, how old they were when they moved into the next world, and if they were married and had children. No flowers adorned the graves to show observers that the deceased were missed by family and friends. The sleepers here are unknown to me. Their past was sadly silent with only the birds and insects keeping watch for them, telling the stories of the dead in a language I would never understand.
This fate awaits us all. The children who visited the graves aged and died, as well as their children. In the not-to-distant future mine will be a name inscribed upon the stone monument. It will be my children who will morn only to later die as well. Over time, my monument will erode so that only a standing rock with illegible script will proclaim that somebody was buried here. Possibly a future author will speculate upon my identity, but like my present day self, will be unable to deduce anything from the silent stone. Perhaps a few generations later, forces will cause the tombstone to fall and dirt and plants will cover it, erasing all semblance of my resting place from the landscape. There is a chance that an archaeologist from a future time may exclaim in joy over the discovery of my remains. Maybe enough DNA will survive that scientists could extract and sequence a sample so that my descendants could be tracked. I like to think it may be worthy of a news story or two, but nothing will be known of me, the son, the husband, and the father. Whether we are rich or poor, this fate awaits us all.
This drove home a basic tenant of life. On a personal level, the future is irrelevant. It is the here-and-now that is important. We need to make every moment mean something to those who love and cherish us. It truly is the only thing that matters.