I was at Martha’s Vineyard a few weeks ago when my phone rang. Emory Tucker, my father’s first cousin, was on the other end.
“Brenda! Where are you, girl? I’ve got another place to show you where you’ll find some old graves,” he said, his voice booming, softened around the edges.
Emory knows I’ve been hunting graves for years. It’s my hobby. No. It’s more than that. Hunting graves is an addiction that takes me back to the land and its beauty and wildness. A longing for the country lives in me.
Emory and I made plans to touch base when I returned to Tifton. Even though I dreaded leaving the island with its glorious hydrangeas, mild weather, and blue waters, Emory’s news of more graves excited me, woke the explorer in me.
Back in Georgia, headed to Emory’s house, I once again irked my grave-hunting group by getting them lost. I’d written the address on a scrap of paper and, in my haste, had gotten the numbers wrong. My cousin lives so far in the boonies the government can’t find him. This time, knowing we’d passed the turn, we wasted no time in getting help. We stopped, called Emory for instructions, and were soon back on track.
My husband, my sister Debra, Hal Sutton, my son Patrick, and I sat with Emory and his sweet wife Jeanette on their screened porch. In appreciation of their kindness to us, I gave them a painting I’d done of a cow. Emory is known throughout the South for a sign on his property: Used Cows for Sale.
My group laughed and shared stories with my cousin and his wife. We searched through old photos, remembering the love of our parents and the good times we once had. And then it was time to go.
Emory was the lead driver, the only one who knew where to find the graves. Our caravan was comprised of three vehicles as we pulled out of Emory’s land and headed to Atkinson County, to the place where my Great Grandpa Jowers used to live on the Willacoochee River, to the place that hid a small graveyard.
We passed the creek where my family had once gathered for family picnics, passed the Rowe-Jowers cemetery where many of my kin are buried, passed places where my father used to help his Grandpa Jowers on the farm. I swooned over the countryside, so raw and beautiful, and inhaled the scent of earth. If I’d placed my hands in the soil of the fields, I would have discovered a pulse and touched a heartbeat, the same pulse my ancestors had known.
Deeper and deeper we snaked among curving roads in Atkinson County. Following Emory and Hal, I told my husband I didn’t know where the heck we were going and didn’t know if we’d ever find our way out. But I didn’t care if we got lost. The countryside was seductive.
I pointed out old fashioned petunias that seemed to be growing wild. We seemed to be leaving one world for another, and the journey was long and delicious, brimming with silence. I reveled in the wonder of it all.
When I was a child, my family, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, had picnics near the river.A dirt road turned into a paved road and then into another dirt road. Then, Emory led us down a long, deeply shaded driveway, past the house where my parents had lived during the early years of their marriage. At this location, Emory introduced us to distant family: Margie Kay and Peggy and a slew of friendly dogs. They welcomed us as though they’d been waiting all their lives for our visit, as though we were the most important people in their lives at that particular moment. Nobody could be nicer than Margie Kay and Peggy to a bunch of people showing up at their door unannounced.
From there, Emory took us to Mike Stone’s house. Mike, a handsome farmer and Angus cattle man, gave us a smile that would melt a female heart in an instant. Riding a 4-wheeler, he led us into a field, the trip taking much longer than I had expected. At last, we stopped at an area surrounded by barbed wire.
The first headstone we examined belonged to Pvt. Alford S.Baisden, 1838-1900. We discovered many slabs, headstones, and monuments in the thick of tall weeds. Because the enclosed area was filled with gofer holes, my husband told me to watch for rattlesnakes. Under the looming threat of snakes, and unable to contain my excitement, I got on my hands and knees near gofer holes, determined to uncover slabs, knowing I might stick my nose in the face of a rattlesnake.
It was late July, and the heat came from above in waves, came from the land in waves. Sweat oozed from our pores.
When we finished at the graves in the field, Mike led us from Atkinson County to a location in Berrien County. We slushed through stinking mud, our boots sucked into the muck, to reach the woods. Among trees and brush, we hiked, fighting vines as eager to capture us as an angry spider in a giant web. We stumbled over roots and bowed beneath low-hanging limbs, and we continued to search.
Hearing Mike say that hadn’t seen the graves for about twenty years, I feared we wouldn’t find them. Breathing heavily, swatting gnats and mosquitoes hovered on our tasty flesh, several of us were discussing giving up when we came upon an unmarked slab. And then another, right beside the first, covered by dirt and leaves, sinking into the earth. Wiping sweat from our eyes, we gathered around the two graves, concealed in the shelter of the woods. We studied the graves, a few yards from the beginning of a field, through weary eyes, studied them as though we’d discovered a hidden treasure of pirate’s gold. Mike told us that when he had last visited the area he’d seen at least a dozen more graves, but on this trip, we couldn’t find them.
Perhaps the graves we couldn’t find had been crushed when the field was extended and trees downed. We may never know.
When the day ended, we explorers were hot and sweaty and tired and satisfied and thirsty and ready for a bath.
I can’t thank Peggy McClelland, Margie Kay Cain, Mike Stone, and Emory Tucker enough. They made it possible for me to experience something special and renew my spirit. Sometimes I must leave the writing behind and explore nature, inhale the scent of earth, and get southern soil under my fingernails. Where there is wildness there is possibility. If I stay away from nature for too long, I get stuck writing and can’t move forward. These wonderful people shared love, knowledge, guidance, and laughter. I am forever grateful.
Brenda Sutton Rose
Author of Dogwood Blues, a work southern fiction.