An Encounter Beyond the Grave

But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. Matt. 6: 20

The graveyard at Christian Bend First Baptist Church was littered with plastic flowers. It was as if the dead were sponsoring a yard sale for florists.

If the dead held popularity contests (and whose to say they don’t?) Kelley and Susie Christian would have been crowned King and Queen of Christian Bend. Just look at all those flowers.

By comparison my own kin’s burying ground looks like the graves of the nearly forgotten. That’s Aunt Cil’s grave there on the far right. I had to lift the branch of the tree just to get to it. That’s her mama off to the left. Those flowers were already on their graves when I arrived. I didn’t know who would have put them there. With Mama’s people nearly all gone now, and none of the living close by, who would remember Aunt Cil or Great-grandma Louisa?

I like a graveyard up next to a church building the way it is at Christian Bend. A church and a graveyard are the bookends of our lives. Or least ways, it used to be that way, back before pastors became CEOs of multi-million dollar businesses.

You don’t know this yet, but since you’ve joined me here I’ll let you in on a little secret – that novel I wrote? The one that’s coming out in September? Mother of Rain? I set it at Christian Bend. This church and this graveyard is the one I envisioned when I was writing that book.

I haven’t stepped inside the church since 1968, when we buried Aunt Cil.  She wore a pink gown. Her long gray hair was brushed and braided into pig-tails that reached all the way down to her elbows. A little white New Testament was folded between her hands. Aunt Cil never had any children of her own. She married a man who had a deaf mute son, Lon, who wasn’t much younger than Cil.

It was Sunday night when I got out to visit my aunt’s grave. Church had just commenced. I nearly talked myself out of going. I’d already been to church that morning. Who needs two sermons in one 24-hour period?  There was no way to not be noticed. I was late for one thing. The church was small for another. Everybody would know I didn’t belong.

I took a seat in the very last pew, on the left. There were 15 men and 13 women. Only a handful of them were white-headed. Most everybody there was my age or younger. I figured there wouldn’t be anyone there who knew Aunt Cil or my mama’s people.

I was wrong.

After the preacher finished his sermon –  an heartfelt take on the Devil’s Drink – people started filing past me, reaching out to shake my hand. They asked if I was from Christian Bend, although, clearly they knew I was not.

I told them how years ago I’d spent a good bit of time with my great-aunt Cil who owned the property at the bend around the corner where the roads met.

Several people in the church knew Aunt Cil.

Cora, Shelia and Pat Christian.

Shelia Christian said, “Your aunt had a mouth on her. She used to come up to the house to watch TV with daddy.”

“Westerns,” I interjected.

“Yes, Westerns,” Shelia said. “She’d sit with that ashtray between her legs, smoking and watching those Westerns with my daddy. Every time a commercial would come on she would start cussing. Daddy, concerned about her swearing, would try to explain to her that without the sponsors they couldn’t watch the Westerns but she didn’t like her show being interrupted.”

The women all remembered how Cil and Lon would get into shouting matches with each other and how everybody on the mountain could hear them.

“But Lon was deaf,” I said.

“It didn’t matter. They’d still yell at each other.”

“But,” Shelia added, “your aunt could pray. She prayed some of the most beautiful prayers I ever heard here at this altar.”

Yes, I thought, that was Aunt Cil. A praying woman.

“Before she died, Cil told my mama to put a red flower on her grave. She said, ‘I don’t have any children and nobody likes me, so put out a red flower for me.'”

Shelia remembers to put the flowers on my aunt’s grave.

Pat remembered the first time she met my aunt. Pat was a young mother and new to the holler. She was sitting in the front porch swing with her newborn son — the last of her children — when she saw something moving in the tall grasses. Raising her hand up over her head, Pat showed me how the grass was a foot taller than her. My aunt was a short, squatty woman.

“I thought some animal was moving through the grass,” Pat recalled. “But out popped your aunt. Liked to scared me to death! She said she didn’t mean to scare me, just came over to see the baby.”

Aunt Cil loved children of all ages. I suppose that’s why Mama left me and Brother John at her place so much of the time.

Then Pat told me something I never expected to hear in  a gazillion years.

“I have a baby blanket that your Aunt Cil made my son. Would you like to see it?”

So I followed Pat up to the house where she lives now. It happens to be the very same house I stayed in the night of Aunt Cil’s funeral. It was the home where I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. A child never forgets something like that. When I stepped out of my car at Pat’s house, there was a dead bird on the ground in front of the grill of the car.

The entire quilt was hand-stitched. Do you have any idea what it feels like to hold in your hand the very thing a loved one crafted decades ago?

I did what I suspect most of you would have done – I bawled.

Recounting the age of  the quilt, I realized my aunt would have been pulling the stitches on this baby blanket as my father pulled mortar through a howitzer in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley.

Aunt Cil was wrong. A lot of us remember her. The very first writing I ever got paid for was a story about Cil rising early in the morning to make biscuits and to read her bible. The women I met at that country church had eaten my aunt’s biscuits. They had remembered them, too. 

The taste of a good biscuit lingers with people. Mamas hang onto a quilt made especially for their babies. Who among us can forget the heartfelt prayers of a repentant soul?

What goodness are you creating that will cause people to leave red flowers and talk wistfully about you long after you’re dead?

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming novel MOTHER OF RAIN, Mercer Univ. Press. Coming September, 2013.

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