Sunday, April 08, 2007

Forgotten Stories in Stone


For over twenty years I’d driven by and never noticed it. Pulling over to study the rocks in an old stone wall, I saw it not ten feet away. A metal fence closely surrounded a single gravestone. The little cemetery was deeply shaded by thick hemlocks on a small knoll that dropped off sharply beside an active little brook. It was the final abode of Marion Abbott - a 17-year-old girl who died in 1860. Alone on the edge of the road - me for the moment; she for eternity - I contemplated Marion and her place. She must have spent time there when she was alive and enjoyed the solitude. The fence suggested that. I wondered if it was her idea - if she’d had time before she died to think about where she wanted to be buried and how her grave would look, or if she passed on too quickly and her family made the decisions.

Was the fence for preserving her privacy in death? Did Marion cherish alone time in her short life? Would she prevent others from sitting next to her grave in her special place? Or was it to stop someone from following her to the great forever?

Looking around, I envisioned the place 150 years ago. The paved road would have been dirt then with the same stone walls on either side, but with sunny, rolling, green pastures behind them instead of dark hemlocks. Did she lie down there alone on the knoll and chew on grass stems, or did she bring a picnic lunch to share with someone else? Did she watch animals graze and drink from the brook now crowded by forest? I climbed over the mossy stone wall and stood on a thick, spongy, hundred-year-old bed of hemlock needles covering the lower part the inscription on the marble headstone. The knees of my pants moistened and the piney smell was strong as I knelt to read the summary of Marion’s life.

MARION
daut of James E & Mary F Abbott
died July 31, 1861 AE 17 yrs 6 mos
Dearest friend, thy pains are ended
Thou hast found a better home
Thy songs are now with angels blended
Where no death nor sorrows come


Climbing back into my truck, I drove off slowly in second gear, thinking about Marion, wondering what she might have looked like, how she dressed. I wasn't in as much of a hurry as I had been. I checked my rearview mirror frequently and pulled over to let others who didn't like my slow pace rush by. I hadn’t gone far when I noticed a big old oak with heavy limbs beside the road - a clue to the location of a cellar hole. Sure enough, on the other side of the road was a line of split granite stones and a break in the wall I could pull my truck into. Again I was surprised to see a family cemetery dominated by an obelisk in the center and surrounded by stone markers. I walked over and climbed the stone stairs leading up the raised earthen platform that comprised the Smith Cemetery. On the base of the tall monument was the following epitaph:

HERBERT
Son of Simon & Mary Ann Smith
Aged 16 YRS 10 M’s
Wounded at Cold Harbor June 3, 1864
Died in Baltimore, Md June 23, 1864
at National Camden Hospital


Why did you go off like that, Herbert? You were too young for battle. Then I remembered that over a hundred thousand boys lied about their age on both sides in the Civil War.

As two crows flew lazily over the surrounding treetops, their caws absorbed by the deep woods, I realized Marion and Herbert very likely knew each other. Did Herbert ever look longingly on the more mature Marion, wishing he were older? He would have been twelve when she died and the war started only two months before. Was his decision to go off and fight before he was old enough influenced by her passing? Had he ever seen her sitting alone by the brook? Did he join her and talk?

Herbert’s grave was the most prominent, but his baby sister, Ella Smith, was born the same year he died. Perhaps he was in camp somewhere in Virginia and read of her birth in a letter from his mother.

The age of trees in and around the Smith cellar hole told me that the Smith family survived in Stow much longer than the Abbott family. Did the Abbotts abandon their farm down the road and join the great migration westward with the dozens of other families from West Lovell and Stow? The woods taking over the Smith farm were less mature than those around Marion’s grave down the street. Herbert’s parents lived on until 1901 and 1903 and were buried next to him. The farm was worked well into the 20th century and the remains of an old automobile were discernible among the encroaching juniper and alders near the barn foundation. His father, Simon, died at 79 on June 26, 1901 - the same time of year Herbert died and the monument marking Herbert's grave was visible from the house. Did painful memories of his soldier son finally get to him? Simon's wife, Mary joined him in the cemetery two years later, also at 79. Three years hence, Ella died an old maid at 42 and is buried nearby. Did she stay and care for her aging parents while Stow’s and Lovell’s eligible men went west? Did anyone live there after Ella? How long before the house and barn fell in and rotted away? I don't know.

The woods and the stones hold many stories. Most, however, are forgotten.

Published April, 2004. Some weeks after it ran in local newpapers, John Chandler of Lovell, who grew up in nearby Chatham, NH told me he knew of Marion Abbott's grave and he'd "heard people say" the teenager died after being gored by a bull.

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