Postcard from Hardwick: My Cemetery Neighbors
My garden borders the Hardwick Main Street cemetery. A row of lilacs interspersed with yellow elecampane rise between my pole beans and a rusting metal fence. All this sultry summer, we’ve left our windows wide open, cooling our house with the breezes rising up this hillside from the river valley below. Often at night, the neighbors’ baby cries, and my 13-year-old daughter wonders, Are babies always nocturnal? Their toddler’s laughter meanders through mammoth sunflower stalks like little soap bubbles, to where I’m crouched, weeding beneath the dawn’s immense runnels of luminescent pink.
An older woman who once worked in D.C. lives in the only other house in our little, dead-end road neighborhood. She and her house — save for the evenings she sets out a saucer of watery tunafish and calls for her gray cat — are silent.
In the cemetery, the tallest granite pillar marks the Jeudevine family, benefactor of the town library. My daughters and I often walk to the library, sometimes for books, sometimes simply to stop in and say hello; nothing more. The librarian, when she first assumed that position, discovered Malvina Jeudevine’s journals stored in the library attic. The summer Malvina’s last living child died of a fever, she wrote about sadness upon sadness. The cemetery holds that sadness upon sadness, the young man who died in Afghanistan just a handful of years ago, the Kimball family who buried three young daughters in the 1880s.
But living beside a cemetery — sowing carrot seeds near my daughter’s soccer field and our stone firepit used for roasting sausages and s’mores — the dead make for marvelous companions. They will never depart, never pack up their belongings and move along to other loves or houses. The dead are here to stay.
With no town park, Hardwickians claim this cemetery as their territory. Older women singly or in chatty pairs walk their dogs. Teenagers with white ear buds roam gloomily, daydreaming. In the upper graveled road, boys light firecrackers, summer and winter. One dusky evening, a couple leaned against the Zecchinellis’ tall stone, an orange hunting cap on the grass beside his boot.
Walking home from town, I see my sunflowers rise high above that metal fence, their gold faces turned upward to follow the light. By fall, their heavy blossoms, bent under the weight of so much seed, hang earthward. The gray squirrels and darting birds loot this shelled bounty, leaving me only scattered, gnawed shells.
Spying me in the garden, the neighbors’ little boy breaks free from his father’s hand and rushes toward me, his pearly teeth gleaming as he asks what I’m digging.
On my knees, I stretch out my dirty palms and offer this child a twisting pink earthworm and a single potato, its gold skin clumped with cold soil.