As a red-blooded American girl I grew up with a, pardon the pun, bone deep fear of cemeteries. My cousin Marcia, six years older than I, told me there were skeletons under the beds in the big old two-story house where I lived with my parents, my grandparents and my aunt Vivian. It was a decidedly spooky house to begin with, with old unused rooms and dusty beds never slept in, wearing the same sheets they had for decades. There were shelves full of books, unread in my lifetime and deep, dark closets that went to who knows where under stairways and slanted eaves. Remnants of the years my family spent as ranchers were present throughout this house: kitchen towels made from feed sacks and tack for horses, tools for marking and castrating cattle, which looked like torture devices to me.
It was twilight, always, there. Electric lights were used mostly at night. They hung on chains as small, pear-shaped pendants, or under one-bulb glass shades. Wood frame windows, with layer upon layer of peeling paint let the sun in, but just barely. The pomegranate bushes and apricot trees, untrimmed and old, bounced back most of the light before it entered those windows, so the sunlight happily found another direction to shine, rather than into this old, dusty house.
Inside the dark, foreboding closets there were wood-bound metal trunks and dusty coats hanging, and who knew what lay behind them. My father, a kind man by nature, once disappeared into one of those dark, untraveled closets under a stair with a two by four, and came out with a dead rat and a bloody plank.
So, the skeleton under the bed tale ended my afternoon napping. That was it. I wasn’t about to place my feet on that hard floor just to be gripped by bony fingers at the end of a bony hand and arm. In the mornings when I awoke, I was protected by my mother and daddy, so skeletons wouldn’t be a problem, so I thought. I could just hop out of bed like everything was normal. It was in the day time, when the house was quiet, and my grandmother cooked in her kitchen, my grandfather sat chewing and spitting his tobacco into a coffee can on the front porch, and my aunt Vivi read books in her upstairs bedroom, that I lay in my parents two room apartment, at the far end of the first floor. This was when I knew I was in danger of meeting the skeletons. I wasn’t about to find out what those bony hands looked or felt like, so I didn’t nap.
Years later, my parents were shopping for land to pasture our horses, south of the city. We had accumulated several by then and were paying stable rent for all. My heart was deeply engaged in the real estate search, which was an emotionally dangerous position in my family.
I had, early on, come to know the pain of attachment. Car buying events had always been agonizing. I fell in love with the new cars, the smell, the colors, the feel of the vinyl seat covers, but more often than not, the trip ended with my mother gripping her purse, pursing her lips and stomping out of the car dealership, usually refusing to discuss it with anyone. Sometimes, a week later, and without further discussion, the new car might just appear in our garage. Again, nobody talked.
One small ranch we looked at had a house on it, with chickens and a rooster in the yard and a meandering stream passing through. Huge rocks taller than a grown man sat on the banks. It was all exotic and beautiful to me. I always felt trapped on the flat, brown, sticker-rich plains of North Central Texas, or in the city, where all life seemed to happen indoors and behind fences.
Eventually my parents put money down on a piece of property without a house, and without a running stream. There was a gully or two that likely flooded when the rain was heavy, but no constant source of water flowed there. My mother liked that. She didn’t swim and she didn’t trust water either. A beautiful stream was a dead end for her in the real estate market.
The most intriguing characteristic of this land wasn’t what was on it at all, but what lay inside it. Once you pulled off the black-top country road and onto dirt roads, then down strips of road that were only tire tracks through Johnson grass, scrub oak and open fields, you finally reached a gate. On the other side of it was yet another road leading to a small shady area where tire tracks, dug out in circular and random formations lay sculpted into the dried mud. The tracks flattened and dug up what naturally grew there, and provided a sort of clearing where parking a car or truck seemed the natural thing to do.
It was what lay adjacent to this area, however, that was keenly interesting to me. It was a very old cemetery, encircled by rusted and half torn down wrought iron fencing, draped with tangles of wild grape vines. The area was carpeted with goat head stickers, stinging nettle and Johnson grass. Mysterious varmints made their homes there too, unseen, but heard as they rustled the leaves and moved the grasses whenever you approached. All of this strange wonder was entirely sheltered from the Texas sun by a stand of live oak trees and Mesquites. The cemetery didn’t belong to the property or the property owners. I didn’t know who or what owned it, but it was made clear to me that it was not part of the property or the sale. In the world of cemeteries it appeared to be an orphan, untended and encircled by land to which it had no connection.
It wasn’t the first really old cemetery I had visited. Our family reunions were held in an area near Weatherford called Spring Creek. The land where we met included an old, white-washed, clap-board church and a very old grave yard, where many family names were carved on stones and family stories of old were told to children, as they walked there with their elders.
This orphan cemetery was probably the age of my family cemetery, but that was where similarity ended. Here, some of the stones were standing and some were lying flat. Others were broken apart. Faded and shredded Confederate and American flags decorated many of the graves. Some graves had been built above ground. Most of these mounds supported by stones were partially broken down and one had a large hole right over the center where the grave and assumedly the coffin would be.
It was, without a doubt the creepiest, scariest place I had ever seen. My pre-adolescent mind went dancing through every scary cemetery scene in every horror movie I’d ever watched. None were creepier than this one. In fact, it held a strong resemblance to the graveyards in the movies.
I found bones in the creek below, which I decided were human. I told my father and my friends that they were taken from one of the graves by an animal, who probably lived inside an old coffin. In fact, I began telling stories of this sort, stories that stretched the already frightful truth of the place to everyone who would listen. Sometimes I took friends along on trips to see the land, which was really about seeing the cemetery. It was the main attraction.
Old fashioned names like Jeremiah and Zeddedia and Martha were etched into grave stones. Roses and Angels carved around them floated as heavenly borders. Every stone and tombstone in the cemetery had a thick layer of Texas dirt encrusting it. Hundreds of dust storms, ice storms, tornado storms, frigid “northerners” and gully-washing thunderstorms had visited this place since the generations whose bones lying here first arrived. Imagining the babies buried there as “sweet”, the young women who died as “graceful” or “fair”, the boys whose lives ended in war as “heroic” was all a stretch for me, despite what was proclaimed on their tombstones. All of their bones, lying in this dirty, forgotten, tangled, and dark place, surrounded by land of which my family was about to take ownership, held nothing of beauty for me. How these lives were in the moments they danced, and smiled held almost no relationship to the state they were in, here, in this wretched bone yard, as far as I could see. If I could have looked into those graves, as I often engaged my imagination to do, I knew I would find them as dirty and void of beauty as this sad, broken cemetery appeared to be from above the ground.
We moved two of our horses onto the land and let them run free to graze there. Often we made the drive out to check on them, give them some oats and watermelon and maybe ride them while we were visiting. My horse stayed in town, and was ridden by me daily, but the two horses living free on the open land were somewhat orphans themselves. My father had inherited them when an old uncle of his died and left them without ownership. Only partially “broken,” the two of us rode them across town, over the bridges, and overpasses and through the streets of Fort Worth, on bare backs. Now they were ours.
One afternoon after school, my parents and I headed down to the property with horse feed and halters to feed and visit the horses. They were named Buddy and Buddy Bay. They came to us named that way and we didn’t change them. It was a cool, beautiful Texas day and the air was pleasant. When we arrived at the clearing and parked the car I told my parents I didn’t want to go with them to catch the horses. I would stay in the car, I told them. They left the keys so I could listen to the radio or sit in the car until they returned. It was pre-adolescent independence I was seeking.
Pasture is a delightful home for horses. They’re free to run and buck and eat fresh grass rooted in mineral-rich dirt, which is tasty and healthy. The two horses my parents went to catch were not necessarily interested in being caught. They were free, had plenty of water, and acres of land with tender grasses and open fields. They needed for nothing, but delighted in chasing one another down, nipping, throwing out a whinny, then leaping, with sand flying from their hooves and thundering off again.
If you have ever gone out to catch a horse on pasture you know how unpredictable it can be. You walk out with a bucket of feed visible and a rope and halter hidden behind your back. Horses in this situation often turn the whole endeavor into a game. They hear people call them. They turn, rotate their ears toward the sound, raise their heads, and watch. The humans draw closer, coaxing and holding the bucket out in front, rattling oats against the metal sides so the horses clearly know what’s in it. The horses may lower their heads again and feign indifference; periodically stomping, shaking their heads and swishing their tales, while looking casually toward the approaching humans at intervals, and chewing contentedly on fresh pulled grass. At this time, the humans start to subtly move the halter and rope to a position with the other hand that would make it easy to grab the horse’s neck and loop the rope around it. Once done, the human can slip the halter over the horse’s head, take the lead rope and walk the horse wherever the human wants to go.
So, as horses often do, ours played the game with my parents for a very long time while I waited in the parked car, my father’s already old 1958 Chevy. I didn’t worry as the afternoon went on. I walked about the area, kicked dirt, and peered into the distance down the trail and to the next hill where my parents had disappeared. I fantasized about my friends and my “would be” boyfriends. Girl groups like the Ronettes and the Shirelles sang songs of love and longing. Ian and Sylvia crooned about “Deep Purple” and, despite the crackle and static of the car radio, I was transported with sweet harmonies to fantasy worlds where my crush of the week looked longingly at me and maybe even kissed me.
So, I played the radio loudly. I took a stroll and explored more mysterious holes, hollows and tangles in the cemetery, and then I walked back to the car to dream and wait.
While I waited, the sun moved lower in the west and the shadows grew long. The cemetery was already tangled and shaded with trees and vegetation grown amuck, and as the light grew dim, the graveyard and the clearing where our car was parked, grew progressively darker.
I began to worry, and I felt spikes of fear squeezing inside my chest. “It’s getting dark” I acknowledged. Then soon, it was getting darker. I stepped out of the car and looked to the west where the sun was now gone and only a faint orange glow radiated over the hilltop. I called to my parents: “Daddy, Mother, where are you? Daaaaddddy, Moootheeer!”
Where were they? I decided to blow the old Chevy’s horn. At first I tapped it, then the taps grew longer, finally, as though more horn blasting would magically bring my parents back, I pushed the chevron disc at the center of the huge steering wheel for long periods and I switched the headlights on, as well. It was really scary there now. My gut knew it and was squeezing so hard that my legs shook.
I retreated into the car, rolled up all the windows and kept my eyes set on the broken down graveyard, the tangling vines, the graves sitting above ground, and the tattered American and Confederate flags that decorated the tombstones. Dead soldiers they were, all of them dead; dead a very long time, along with the babies, the young girls, and the old geezers whose bones were resting, oh my Lord, how I hoped they were resting, under the ground!
I wasn’t much of a crier. Crying never got me anything at home, and even now I was too afraid to cry. I was hyper-alert, leaning into the steering wheel and pressing the car’s horn almost constantly, occasionally coming up, looking with pupils as wide as M&Ms, into only the silence and the motionless dark. The headlights saved me from total darkness, although they were not pointed toward the cemetery, but toward the hill, where my missing parents had disappeared. Even the low level of starlight that shone onto the car and the clearing eluded the cemetery, which was dark like a black hole, under it’s tangled canopy of Mesquite trees and weeds.
I noticed that the car’s horn was quieter than before, and the headlights were beginning to dim.
Oh no! Oh no! I lay down in the front seat, so I wouldn’t be seen by ghost or ghoul, and I could still reach the horn. “Come soon,” I thought. Please come soon!
Moment by moment the car’s horn faded, and the lights grew dimmer and dimmer until finally there was no horn and there were no lights. There was only me, in an empty car with a dead battery, which was fitting, because all the human beings anywhere near my location were also dead. Judging through my pre-adolescent mind, I was sure I was in hell.
Boney fingers could emerge any moment now, sliding up the vertical surface of the car door.
I heard a rasping sound.
I knew that at any moment they would become visible through the glass window, their iridescent bones shining from what dim light the moon and stars brought into this forsaken clearing.
For me, at that point, time stopped.
I don’t know how long I was there and I don’t know how many times I called for my parents as I shivered on the cold, vinyl seat-covers, which were no comfort at all. My mind was void of reason. I was a fear processing machine by then, neither sure nor unsure of my fate, neither brave nor cowardly, simply lying and waiting to meet my pending demise. All my attention was focused on visions or sounds that would alert me to the approach of a ghoul from the depths of hell or of my parents,… oh please be my parents, coming back to save me.
Eventually, after what seemed hours, I heard voices approaching, too distant to recognize. As the sound grew closer I strained and became motionless, focusing only to recognize inflections or tones from the voices I desperately prayed would belong to my mother and my father.
I sat up and I saw shadowy forms moving toward me down the dirt path. They appeared to be human forms, alone, with no horses to be seen.
Now they were less than two Chevy lengths away, and then, as my heart pounded through my shirt, I could see them.
They were my parents.
Suddenly, reality dawned simultaneously with relief and I saw the full scene of which I was a part. Yes, I was sitting in a dark car with a dead battery. Yes, it was my fault. All at once, I realized the foolishness of my folly. I was simultaneously giddy with relief and guilt-stricken with embarrassment and regret. I had wrecked the car, or so I thought. How angry would my parents be at me now?
When my parents arrived at the car door, they didn’t say much. They just went straight about solving the dead battery problem. There were no hugs, and there were no tears. My father went walking off in the dark, in another direction, shaking his head and mumbling, and my mother sat and waited in the car with me. She talked about not catching the horses. Eventually my father returned in a pick-up truck driven by another man. They popped the hood, clipped on the cables and the old Chevy engine turned over, the lights shone, and the car came back to life. It was the only dead item resurrected on that dark Texas night. Then, we drove home.
How strange it was, I thought, that my parents made not even a glance in the direction of the cemetery. How could they be so unconcerned? They were some other kind of human animal, I guessed. I didn’t know how to describe the difference. I suspected it anyway. I heard it in the echoes of the sweet, longing harmonies and the voices of the girl singers that played on the car radio. They also were nothing like my parents.
I never knew how it happened, but eventually we removed our horses from the land and brought them back to town. I never saw the cemetery again. My heart broke, but only a small fissure opened. I was on my way somewhere else, chasing another phantom that would take me far away from my Texas childhood and my family. The acreage didn’t become ours and I was never told why. It was never discussed.
This is my last childhood memory in which comfort and understanding characterized the relationships in my small family. Soon afterward, the building would begin of the stony wall that divided us from one another. Those sweet songs were carrying me to a place my mother would see as evil. Her fears would become suspicion. Her suspicion would become anger and anger would become resentment, which would define her love for me for the remainder of her days. Our hearts would begin to harden toward one another, as though we both suffered from the insidious disease of scleroderma which transforms soft, pliable human tissue into hardened, boney structures, potentially attacking everything, even the human heart. We, ourselves, would become the fearful skeletons.
My parents bodies lie side by side, under the ground, within a plot, in a beautiful, well-maintained cemetery which also holds the bodies of all the residents of the old family home. I am thankful they are there, together, although all life has moved on, and what remains is only dust and proteins, working their way back into the earth. My mother wanted to be buried in a pine box, but the laws wouldn’t allow it. She wanted to crawl with the worms and bloom with the dandelions. Children must find this manicured cemetery scary, and some day it will be an orphan too, or earth movers will disturb the carefully chosen burial boxes that hold all their bones, and relocate them.
I touched my father’s face, when he lay in his coffin, his body awaiting his funeral and burial. I found it cold and as hard as concrete. I knew then, with a deep sense of comfort that he was elsewhere, that he was gone. He is present in my memories, however, and in the way I understand my place on this earth. His walking cane hangs beside my desk. It steadied his gait after many falls from a stumbling horse that he loved too much to put down or out to pasture. I feel, on most days, that his love is here and his presence comforts me, sometimes subtly, sometimes with surprising clarity. There is no fear involved in these experiences.
We all drive through the dark night, knowing that someplace ahead, the bridge is out. Wrestling with fear, grief and confusion, our fear of death becomes fear of the dead. Whether we believe or don’t believe there is a portal from this life to the next, we are aware that what happens when life has gone is decay. This decomposition is an elegantly programmed enzymatic and chemical process that takes our left-over components back to the earth. There, they serve the essential purpose of nurturing new life. No embalming methods or fancy packaging into sealed boxes changes that. Neither does the practice of cremation. The form we claim as ours someday becomes dust.
I might be nervous, yet, if left alone on a dark night in a car with a dead battery, several footsteps from an orphaned cemetery. Still, I emerge from this memory with the knowledge that I was clearly afraid of the wrong things. Children grow up afraid of the wrong things. We work our way through life and often die afraid of the wrong things. What, then, should we fear?
Like the enzymes we carry inside us that will take our lifeless bodies back to the earth, we also carry the seeds of frightful misperceptions and fears and resulting misguided actions. Like static on a car radio, they confuse and block the messages and truths we need to build foundations and construct the best versions of ourselves and our lives. Cautions and prohibitions from a broad selection of traditional religious texts describe these seeds of illusion. The Yogic advice offered by T.K.V. Desikachar in “The Heart of Yoga,” speaks with clarity to me and reduces these obstacles to four cautions which Desikachar calls Avidya. They are: craving, refusal, ego, and, yes, fear itself, with it’s potent influence in a wide range of human dysfunction. The way we address and give cautious attention to these obstacles is directly linked to our ability to love our neighbors, our families and even ourselves.
When Halloween comes I laugh and scream with my children, and pump up silliness for ghost stories, skeletons and haunted houses. I believe it teaches them to laugh at and play with what frightens them. We also celebrate my father’s birthday, which is Halloween, and we honor all those who have come before us. We place photographs, candles and personal objects out in our home, in the spirit of Dia De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
From the first time my children saw a sparrow fly into our plate glass window and die beneath it, they knew that death is loss. I’ve seen them feel the chill that comes as a shot of adrenalin, from guts to cranium, when imagining the death of a loved one, or of themselves. I teach them that real strength comes from truth and that an abiding love arches over them, like a protective sky, sheltering and comforting their days on this earth and beyond. I teach them the importance of maintaining a sanctuary of loved ones to surround them, so when they are frightened or overwhelmed, they have these others to love and support them through the storm. Finally, I teach them that love is not separated by death, and those dusty bones in their sealed boxes are moved only by gravity, chemistry and garden insects. We are the fearful skeletons, and we are also divine, walking in the light, placing footsteps lovingly or carelessly, one after the other, as we take our journeys over the earth.
Jane O’Shields-Hayner is a writer and a visual artist, living in the foothills of the Cleveland National Forrest, in Southern California. She is also a practicing Occupational Therapist specializing in home health. She has recently published works in Tiferet Journal and in Friends Journal. Jane has a life-long history of publishing her autobiographical writing and poetry and showing her visual art. She also has a history in teaching art. She and her husband, Bill Hayner, who is also an artist, have two adult children and two young elementary-age children.