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In a Country Churchyard

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I'm amused by the shape of a high-hanging white-faced hornet's nest, echoing that of our enormous light blue watertower behind the scrim of trees. I guess they paint them blue to blend with the sky?
Which they sort of do. White would probably work better for most of the year...these white-sky winters seem to last forever.

We approach the Waxler Church, which sits high atop a hill outside Whipple, Ohio.
When the belltower started to fall down, the community's caretakers (a little band of former parishoners and their descendents) put the bell in a plexi box down front.
A way to keep it from falling through the roof, a way to keep it in memoriam.

To me, it looks like the church's head, displaced.

 The only spots of color are from a little American flag and a blue plastic bucket by the front door.

I know what that bucket is for. It's for spent plastic and silk flowers, which are about the only kind you ever see in these seldom-visited country church burial grounds. 

I circle the graveyard, looking for people I know. The longer I live here the more people I know. I see a former town selectman, and remember the three times he came to visit, once to greet us, once to get our vote, and once to investigate when our neighbor set his natural gas line afire. WHOOOOOMP!!!

Irene walks the roads I run on nice days. She usually has her hands behind her back, and never waves, but she might give me a chin throw sometimes. I don't see her in the winter, but I see her out walking most nice days the rest of the year. She lives alone down a dirt road in a tidy white single-wide. Doesn't have a car, has probably never driven. She used to live in a farmhouse after her husband died, but it burned down. The neighbors take care of her every need. This simple fact amazes me. She has no one else, so they bring her food and check on her every day. She's six years younger than my mother. Phoebe and I decide to bring her something on her birthday, which is coming right up. Her stone awaits.

Behind her rests Bessie Morganstern. She used to live in a white farmhouse on the corner of our road. I never knew her, but I knew her grandson Gary. Gary hunted everything, ate everything that walked, crawled or flew through these woods and fields. I wrote about Gary, even recorded an NPR commentary about him. The farmhouse is gone now, but daffodils push up through the smooth haymeadow each spring where it was.

I peer in, and the ghostly outline of the graveyard is overlain on the pews within.
I'm surprised to find the door secured only by a rubber bungee cord. I help myself inside.

These were German immigrants who built and attended this little church, which later became a schoolhouse, as many of them did.

Photos hang on the walls, undisturbed in the frigid cold. My dad would have been three years old when this photo was taken in 1915.

I roll the old-fashioned names around in my mouth. Gertrude, Bessie, Gladys, Luvada, Erma, Elver, Clessent. Names you don't hear any more. I wonder if they will ever come back. I somehow can't see them fighting their way past the Kaylas and Klaceys, the Briannas and Baileys of today. 

We make our way to the front, to what amounts to an altar.

There is a bouquet of silk flowers there, and in the bouquet someone has stuck a dark feather.

I am happy to inform you that it once rode the thermals in the wing of a turkey vulture, my totem bird. 

O person who put it here, thank you, for whoever you are, with your simple gesture you have made my day.
 I wonder if you knew it was a vulture's plume. 

Doubting it, but shivering with the perfection of it all anyway. 


I'm curious as to why you feel drawn to the turkey vulture, to the point that it is your totem animal. What qualities does it possess that you feel it brings to you?

For me, it is the crow, because of their intelligence and resourcefulness. I love the way they will leave tree nuts in a parking lot for the cars to run over and crack, so that they can get to them. Also, they are scavengers, and so am I, picking over things at garage sales and thrift shops that others have discarded. And secondarily, the spider, for the way it weaves its web to attract what it wants. Then it sits and waits patiently for it, acting only at the right moment. Patience is a quality that I am constantly learning to wield.

Someone (must have) once said, "You know you're getting old when you have more friends in the graveyard than out." The list of those in our local "skull orchard" as my dad (two years younger than yours) used to call it, is growing--still at a fairly slow clip--but growing nonetheless.

Mimi, I have a whole chapter in The Bluebird Effect about how the turkey vulture made its way to totem status for me. Mostly, it's because they appear to me when I need guidance. And twice I've seen a nearly pure white leucistic individual that knocked my socks off. And when I've had the honor of working with them I have loved their spirit. They're known more for their good works than their good looks. They clean things up. They make the world a better place.

Beautiful piece! Reminds me of a vintage church building in rural eastern Pennsylvania where there was a wedding a few years ago. I provided the music. The church had been abandoned for decades, but the bride, who grew up near there, had always admired it and dreamed of getting married there someday. When the time came, she secured permission to do just that. It was a simple, traditional ceremony, much like what the weddings had probably been during the church's prime. Being in those kinds of places is at once eerie and inspiring. I love it.

Reading your post and looking at your pictures I was right there with Chet and you--checking out the gravestones, going into the church, feeling the winter cold. The turkey vulture feather made your day. Your post made mine!

This reminds me of the old churches here from the pioneer days. I often have taken the same photos but never done a blog on it is particularly nice to read your report and see the lovely photos. Happy New Years. cheers.

I love your sketch of Irene--not just our parents' generation, but a nineteenth-century life, it seems, and remote even by those standards. It's downright moving to know that can still go on.

The photo taken through the window, with the reflection of the trees and graveyard overlying the pews, is hauntingly meaningful, especially for an abandoned building like this! Wow.

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