Sunday, December 18, 2011
The graveyard had a festive look to it. A light layer of snow had smoothed out the hodge podge of headstones, black, grey, white, marble, wood, stone, cast iron. Gave it a pleasing December uniformity. I slowed and stopped, taken by a stooped figure bent over a grave.
Her appearance was edging more towards the grotesque than the eccentric. A long greenish coat, hooded. Footwear that could only be described as old-fashioned with ancient galoshes, unfastened, flapping around her ankles as she trod gingerly around the oversized graveyard plot, leaving huge footprints.
A massive scarf, knitted in the colours of a shabby rainbow, bleeding dropped stitches and a half-hearted incomplete fringe at one end was thrown around her neck. She had stuffed a large pair of snow-mobile mitts into each capacious pocket of the coat.
The hair I could see was scandalous. Her yellowed scalp bore an inch of white roots followed by the lankest blackest straightness of any hair I'd ever seen. I felt an unwelcome revulsion at the filth of it.
A much younger woman stood off to the side, bored, texting furiously on a pink pad. She didn't even raise her eyes to look at me as I approached the older woman.
She was very busy, I could see that. Draping pieces of Christmas tinsel on to some small wooden crosses. Standing back to evaluate her handiwork. Moving forward again to adjust the sparkled thread in some intrinsic pattern only she was privy to.
"A time of remembrance" I said to her, a bit nervously, for how dare I intrude like this. A stranger. A nosy stranger.
"Yes, my darling," she said, as only old women of Newfoundland would speak to someone they didn't know. Something caught in my throat. How long had it been since I'd been someone's darling? I wanted to hear it again.
"A lot of family graves here, then?" I gestured at the many crosses.
"I replaces them every few year, my darling", she stood up painfully. I was surprised at her height. A tall outport woman, far, far older than I had originally guessed.
I told her who I was. I told her I was a writer.
"I'm Ita O'Neill, my darling," she said, "and this here is my family!" and she slowly waved her hand out over the plot as if introducing everyone. I bowed generally in their direction.
"I'm ninety-one," she said then, "and over there is my great-grand-daughter, her nose and hands so busy with no one who is here, the way of things now, right my darling?" I nodded. We are all so busy with no one who is here, I thought. It is easier than dealing with those who are.
"And these," and she spread her hands outwards and over the graves, "are my babies."
"My ten babies. Imagine that. All dead within a week of their coming into the world. Some right after their birthing. Some within a few days, no doctoring then. No reasons at all. All born with my black hair. All dying. None to have a birthday or Christmas or schooling." She draped a piece of tinsel over the last white cross.
"Well nigh over sixty years ago now since the last one. Albert. I gave them all names when I put the holy water on their foreheads. I never had the money for a real headstone. With the names all fancy on it. A list, like."
"Maybe this way is better," I offered, "Now they've all got their own markers."
"And I'm the only one now who knows which darling is under each cross."
"Tell me," I said, "I'll remember".
Bernadette. Rosemary. Peter. John. Annie. Bernard. Sheila. William. Agnes. Albert.