Grave Notions

By Pete Tucker

 Part One – Discussions with the Dead

Mom would visit the old cemetery regularly to “have a chat” with Dad. She would then come home and talk with us in exacting detail about the graveside conversation she’d just had with her husband of 53 years, as well as the conclusions they’d drawn.

Surely it would have been disrespectful to question her accounts of these occasional visits with Dad, but let’s face it. No one was taking minutes of the meetings and Dad’s replies had to have been perceived only in Mom’s mind… I guess.

To Mom, that obviously didn’t make them any less real.

Was I or any of my siblings present at one of these visits?  What would we have heard? Beats me!

Years ago, it wasn’t as though my siblings and I had never been to the cemetery with Mom paying our homage to Dad. Those occasions seemed to leave little clue. They were usually short-lived, but contemplative sessions. We would discuss one remembrance or another of Dad, normally something that happened on the farm.

Then, in our own silent way, we would bid Dad good bye until the next time we’d pay a visit. Those next times we’re becoming less frequent for me and my brother and two sisters, but not for Mom. She and Dad were visiting more so than before.

Dad departed from all of us six years ago after a tragic incident . He’d been mowing hay in the back thirty when he had a massive heart attack. I had the misfortune of being the first to arrive at the scene, a quizzical one at that.

Something hadn’t sounded quite right from my vantage point at our barns. I was able to hear his Allis Chalmers powering through heavy first cutting Orchard Grass. That engine was roaring. There had been a sudden, abrupt down-throttle, then back up again, full bore. That alone was immediately curious. What was he doing back there?

Then suddenly a muffled stalling of the Diesel engine with some unidentifiable noises from the distant field. Then silence. Nothing was normal about what I’d just heard.

That oddity prompted me to head back to the field to check that all was OK. Upon arriving, what I quickly saw made no sense. There were three or four initial swaths around the field, all neatly linear at the field’s edge, as Dad would have done it.

Then Dad, the tractor and attached mower were nowhere to be seen. The equipment had taken an oddly divergent venture toward the middle of the field, a totally nonsensical departure from the already established mowing pattern. At that point  it was as though no one had been steering the tractor. A nonsensical serpentine swath randomly diverged toward the middle of the field.

Something was dead wrong. It was alarming.

I had made it to the field on a little old Ford 8N tractor. I immediately resolved to drive down the path of the aberrant swath, expecting to there find Dad’s tractor … and Dad, somewhere.

The Orchard Grass was nearly shoulder high. To take in as full a view of the field as possible, I stood straight up on the running boards of the 8N. In short order I could see the orange of the Allis Chalmers, not where I expected it to be. It had continued a squiggly path to the other edge of the field and appeared to have had a head-on collision with an Oak tree, sufficiently stout to stall the tractor.

Still, no Dad! I was panicked. Just a bit further down the swath, however , there lay his motionless body. I stopped, jumped off and ran to see if he was conscious. He was not. I checked his pulse. He had none. An overwhelming sense of grief came over this nineteen year old boy. Why had this happened?

At that point in time, the advent of the cellphone was still to come. From the field, I fourth geared the little tractor back to our house. The task was a delicate one; that of breaking the sad news to Mom and siblings while, at the same time, using the home phone to marshal an ambulance to the farm and back to the field.

Mom sat there in the kitchen, weeping and aggrieved.

I told the rescue squad that their promptness wasn’t vital, that Dad was dead. Nonetheless, I later learned that the ambulance barreled down the lane, siren blaring. Meanwhile, I returned to the field. My brother, Dag as we called him, said he’d be there shortly and would bring Mom.

By some miracle, Dad had fallen off the tractor and avoided being shredded by the discbine, horrific specter that it was.

So, there I knelt in the tall grass next to Dad, not yet knowing that he’d had a heart attack. My body trembling with the anguish of the moment, I looked up to witness rays of sunshine beaming through the grass that were singularly beautiful. Despite current circumstance, it was a spiritual instance, as though the sunshine sought to assuage a sorrowful moment.

My eyes welled. Dad was gone, but I found solace knowing that he had passed through the Heavenly gates doing what he loved to do.

I found it remarkable that, at that moment, it seemed Dad and I were having a conversation, an illusory dream-like instance. We were talking about things that he loved to talk about: the beauty of the day, a most impressive harvest and the negligible chance of rain in the forecast.

Regardless, I heard Dad’s voice clearly advising me that this was a turning point in my life. I’d have to be stronger than I had ever been before. His passing today placed an onus on me. Mom would need my support, my brother and sisters as well. Our family had to stick together in support of each other.

“You have to foster that”, I perceived Dad to say.

I was shaking my head in agreement when Mom and brother Dag showed up. A bit embarrassed, I sheepishly explained to Mom that I was just having some solemn thoughts about Dad. She placed her hand on mine.

“That’s OK, Love”, she replied, weeping .

Given this memory, it didn’t surprise me whenever Mom came home from the cemetery with descriptions of her recent “chat” with Dad. That now seemed altogether plausible.

Part Two – Familiar Refrains

Two years later, it so happened that I was motoring by the cemetery one day. This was not unusual. Safe to say that I was, at least, an occasional passer-by. What was unusual was spying an old acquaintance making her way through the ironclad gate, entering the cemetery. I braked as to engage her and spoke just as my window rolled down.

“Hello, Millie”.

It had been a long time since I’d seen Millie Pittinger. In fact, I was taken aback to witness how the vestiges of time had not been kind to her. Nonetheless, she was as affable as ever and neared my car to visit for a moment.

Given our mutual long history here, we were soon comparing notes on the numbers of our kin who populated the cemetery. My family had been here for four generations. Millie’s five, so her kin had been here a bit earlier.

We both momentarily pondered. Hopefully both families had, in small measure, gentrified our neck of the woods. We shared a chuckle over that.

Given what I’d just been recalling, I mentioned to her the story of Dad’s death and hoped that she didn’t consider me a bit flaky with my account of a post-mortem conversation with him.

“Are you kidding”, she replied, leaning at my car window .“That has surely happened to me.”

Well, Hallelujah, I thought to myself. Maybe I’ve finally found someone with whom I feel comfortable talking about the phenomenon. So I pressed her a bit further to tell me what she knew. Millie seemed to pretty well have her feet on the ground regarding the subject.

“It doesn’t appear to me that this is something that happens to most of us,” she confided. “I have a theory on it, though. I might be all wet, but I think it only happens between people who knew each other really well when both were living. They would be your parents, grandparents or friends who you spent a bunch of time with. At least that’s what I figure.”

Millie went on to postulate that sometimes people know each other so well that they hear the other’s reply whether the other voiced the answer or not. I was intrigued by that notion. She had obviously given it some thought.

I wondered, “but how do you know that you’re not rationalizing your way around this and maybe not really understanding it? Are there people out there who’ve had conversations with dead folks who they never knew. Ya gotta believe so.”

“That might be”, Millie conceded. “Hey, I don’t profess to have many answers. Who does? For all we know, old Heinz Schnitzer over there in the corner may have had talks with folks from a couple centuries ago.”

Millie was making reference to what may be the oldest gravesite in the cemetery. Schnitzer was a Hessian soldier in the American Revolutionary War, fighting for the English. Indeed, his gravesite is in a very obscure corner of this old burial ground.

I found it remarkable that Millie and me, two native Hunterdon County residents who just happened  to cross paths today, were discussing a Hessian soldier of nearly 250 years ago who might well have fallen victim of a bludgeoning from Washington’s troops on Christmas Eve, December 25, 1776.

The world had just gotten a bit smaller!

“He never went back to Germany, you know?”, Millie mentioned.

“Oh really?”, I replied.

“No, actually he deserted ranks just before the attack on Trenton and wandered here to Hunterdon County.”

“How do you know that?” I asked Millie.

“He told me”, she replied.

I paused for a second and adjusted the purse of my lips.

“WHOA, wait a minute. You just finished telling me your theory of post- mortem conversations and how the folks really had to know one another. Now you’re telling me of your chat with a soldier of the Revolution. What’s up with that?”

“That one I was able to confirm”, Millie replied. “ I found a Schnitzer over by Bloomsbury who is a descendant of the fellow.  The erstwhile Schnitzer apparently passed down some fascinating records of his service during the Revolution, records that survived to this day in that family, on nearly decomposed paper. Small miracle, itself.”

“I said something to the Bloomsbury Schnitzer,” Millie continued “about his relative having deserted at Trenton. He got real serious. How did I know that, he wanted to know.

Oops, I’d said too much. He looked at me like I was a freak when I answered, ‘He told me’.

“That, of course, commenced a whole discussion with him about the matter of posthumous conversations. I think he thought that I was some kinda nut job”, Millie smirked, “but he couldn’t deny the validity of what I had just told him. In fact, he confirmed it.”

Millie and I both agreed that our conversation was getting a bit long in the tooth. I made one final observation to her as I looked across the spacious graveyard.

“You know, Millie, we’ve spoken here about one occupant of this big old yard. Imagine! They all have a story!”

Millie’s reply didn’t surprise me.

“And, you know what”, she said. “They all talk!”

I chuckled.

“Did you ever read Spoon River Anthology?,” I had to ask Millie.

“No”, she replied, “Who wrote that?”

“Edgar Lee Masters. Written near WWar One. Fictitious, but all those buried in a little town in,  I think Illinois, recite their poetic epitaphs from six feet under. It’s a great read.”

“Now that sounds interesting,” said Millie. “Now what would you be saying?”

“You mean, if I was buried right here?

“Yes, of course. Both of us, which’s the way you know it’ll be”, Millie replied.

“Well, that’s a challenge, but I’ll give you a rough idea of how Masters would have written it.”

Millie’s smile was beaming. She loved this stuff, it was easy to tell.

“Well have at it”, she said, leaning on my car, as though poised for a show.

“Well, of course , each epitaph starts with the name on the gravestone.”

I paused to ponder for a moment, then delivered this:


Safe to say, I was good at being outdone. My farm was at a decent elevation, but who had the higher ground ? Millie Pittenger and all her relation. Perhaps it just had to do with being here first.

I had 60-some acres. Millie, one hundred and one.  And Soil Conservation gave Millie’s land a better score.

The monument at Pittenger’s plot is very statuesque . Even emoting arabesque.

The passerby would miss mine , if not peering with interest.

What  did it matter, Millie ? Here we both lie. We’re in the same pasture now, no longer viewing damask sky.

A tear welled in Millie’s eye.

“How can you do that”, she asked.

I held out both hands, as though introducing the heavens.

“Look where we are. How could I not ?”

We hugged. Millie opted to be on her way.

It occurred to me that here were two neighbors who’d just taken the time to know each other a bit better. Fitting that we should, I noted to Millie. We’d be neighbors for a long time.