Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Hillside Grave

       I'm not a licensed counselor, but in my job I hear a lot of stories from people who have lost a loved one. We phone our bereaved families several times throughout the first year of their loss, and sometimes they call us, too. They often will see a counselor or join a group, but sometimes they don't want any of that. Sometimes they just want to talk briefly to someone, buffering against their loneliness.
         This story is about one of those callers, a widower who served in the Marines during four wars.  Vernon X and his wife were married over 60 years ago. One day he called our office just to thank us for the phone message we'd left. I think he just needed to talk about his wife to someone. I was lucky I had a little time; it was my honor to listen. After our first conversation, he called a couple more times, remembering my name, and sharing a few more thoughts and memories on a lonely afternoon. He had met the girl who would become his wife before joining the service, just before WWII. They both lived here in the rural mountains of NC. He was a grade or two older than she, but several grades were taught in one room then. Even with such close proximity, he never spoke to her then.
       The story went like this: she was the little sister of a classmate/friend and one day this friend rode out in a wagon to their farm to make a trade. An errand for the boys' fathers; something to do with logs and hay, I wasn't too clear. The sister came along, and apparently she was friendly with Vernon's own sister. So, these kids were hanging out, loading stuff into the wagon for their parents and just eying each other. He decided that day that she was the one he wanted to marry. They were outside of school, at his own property, but still he didn't approach her. In his words, "I didn't speak to her. I knew her to see her, but we never spoke." In my mind I imagine those teenage boys toting, lashing and preparing a wagon full of wood while the girls busied themselves in other ways, the gender lines drawn as expected. They were mountain people. It's common to let silence make its connection before trusting the use of words. When he got out of school he went straight to war. Either he wanted to make something of himself, or he wanted to stay occupied until she finished school - he never explained. It might simply have been that the war was on and he wanted to be a part of it.
     On his ship's first return, 11 months later, he wrote her a letter, from the urging of a buddy. "I didn't know what to write  'cause I wasn't sure she'd remember me." As it turns out, he actually proposed marriage in the letter. No words had yet passed between them. He gave the letter to his sister who managed to get it to the girl somehow. It turns out she not only remembered him, she accepted his proposal. I'd have to guess whether it was a case of silently reciprocated attraction, fueled into confidence by the nudgings of mutual friends, or if it was a complete shot in the dark for Vernon. We may never know. This story was told to me several times, but always in the same way, without embellishment.
     I asked him if he found things to talk about with her after they got married. "We never left each others' side." he boasted, not exactly answering the question.  He told me about the military bases around the world where they lived through the years: Germany, South Korea, the Mediterranean, even New Jersey, and ended up back in these rural mountains after Desert Storm when he retired. He was still very active as a military volunteer. He helped set up the Veterans' cemetery in Black Mountain and for 15 years was on the maintenance committee, keeping it clean. Most veterans in that graveyard have a flat stone, he said, "To make it easier for mowing." Only high ranking officers are buried with "upright headstones" in a separate section.
      He had reserved a place for himself and his wife early on. His buddies at the cemetery were aware of his wife's declining health and how he spent time as her caregiver. Vernon hadn't earned rank enough to claim an upright  plot in the officer's section, so he ordered a flat marker with her name on it while she was a hospice patient. I found it difficult to understand why he wouldn't have earned an officer's grave after 60 years in the service, but this is what he said. Then two days after his wife's death he was given word he had special permission to bury her in the upright section. I guess his buddies sent up a special request for him without his knowing. He called me when the stone was ordered and called again after it was set in place. Apparently a wife and husband can share a headstone for a fee, with one eulogy on the front face and the other engraved on the back side. He loved telling about the location of their plot. He had walked between those stones and worked on that land for years. He knew the grass, the slope of the land and all the rules that held it as a sacred place. From the hillside of upright stones one can see plenty of sky and the graceful shapes of surrounding mountains, It was as if he had lovingly prepared a quiet resting place for the two of them to spend eternity in the hills where they grew up.

    I haven't heard from Vernon in a while. I guess he still maintains the cemetery and visits his wife's grave while he's there. Maybe he talks to her out there in the officers' section. Or maybe he doesn't. Maybe he just looks at her stone, remembering their whole lives together, and lets silence make the connection.

Veterans Cemetery, Black Mountain, NC


  1. I keep imagining her heart pounding hard in her chest when reading the letter of Vernon's proposal. I think she already loved him too.