2013: I left my husband at home to play bridge with his buddies and went to meet a couple of friends for a day of grave hunting. The oppressive South Georgia heat was not merciful. It wasn’t a good day for outdoor activity, but my friends and I had made plans and we would stick to them.
Hal, Licia, and I loaded in Hal’s truck and headed to Morven. We went to Emory Tucker’s place first, but not before I got us lost. I’d scribbled a few words pertaining to the directions to Emory’s house, believing I’d remember the rest. I was wrong. Hal said he should never consider my directions; they always took us off track .
Emory is my cousin. Second cousin, I believe. He and his wife greeted us when we drove up, welcomed us inside their screened porch, entertained us, teased us, scared the dickens out of us, and led us to several graves in the woods behind his house. The earth had begun swallowing the graves one chunk at a time. I took notes, photos, and documented as much as I could during the visit.
But this writing is not about Morven. This is about what happened after we left Emory’s house.
Leaving Emory’s house, we aimed homewards, north on I-75. It was the middle of the afternoon, and we had wilted. I swear the hours crinkled around the edges like a sheet of paper too close to a flame. I sat in the front passenger seat, air conditioner aimed at my face, wearing my husband’s combat boots from Vietnam that weighed as much as a good-sized dog, boots several sizes too big for me. Licia, my friend for about twenty years, was in the back seat with our cameras. Never afraid to be different, she wore funky boots and Christmas socks. It was not the Christmas season.
As we arrived in Cook County, we made a quick decision to stop in Cecil, population a few hundred, and ask for directions to a cemetery I wanted to see. I instructed Hal to make some turns that ended up being wrong, and he and Licia teased me about getting us lost again. My directions were always questionable.
It took us some time to locate the place, and, once there, we walked around the cemetery, looking at old graves, but nothing that thrilled us. We wondered aloud about the history of the area, wanting to know more about the dead, but we were tired. I felt as though I’d sweated all the enthusiasm from my body. After no more than ten minutes, we decided to call it a day and go home.
Hal slid behind the wheel. Again, Licia got in the back with the cameras and water. I took the front passenger’s seat and complained about the heat. I ached and my flesh was burning. I couldn’t get home soon enough. I wanted to take off my boots and prop up my feet in the comfort of home.
Down the dirt road, leading away from the cemetery, we spotted an African American woman leaning on a tobacco stick by the side of the road. She waved for us to stop, then waved again, as though fearful Hal would drive past her. I wondered aloud, “Good Lord, what could she want?”
Licia said, “I don’t know, but she looks interesting.”
Hal slowed the truck and pulled it to a stop beside the woman. She was standing on the side of the road nearest me. Working the electric windows from his panel, Hal lowered my window. I leaned my head out, and Mary Louise White Miller spoke first, before I had a chance to say a thing.
“Whatcha looking for?”
“We heard there was an old cemetery here. We’re looking for interesting graves.”
“Uh-huh. Well, right down there’s where them graves are.” She pointed down the road to the area we had explored.
I explained that we had walked around the cemetery without finding anything of interest, she leaned in, her face close to mine, and asked, “You want me to go with you?” A gleam burned from eyes. “I know those dead people.”
“Yes,” I said. “Show us.”
A man, perhaps in his thirties, came out of the house and handed her a red plastic Solo cup filled with iced tea. “Here’s your tea,” he said, his voice respectful and kind. She took it and asked if we wanted some, but we didn’t. We had plenty of water in the truck.
The man sat a few feet from the woman on a large can flipped upside down and listened to our conversation. He smiled and chuckled about our plans to take Mrs. Miller to the cemetery. I told him not to worry, assuring him that we would bring her back safe and sound. He said, “If there’s one person I ain’t worried about it’s her.” He laughed. “She can take care of herself.”
Her voice stern, Mrs. Miller gave the young man a quick look and said, “Go get my good walking stick.”
He nodded and went inside the house. While waiting for the young man to return, I got to stretch my legs, pulled my own tobacco stick from the truck, and Mrs. Miller and I stood together, at the edge of her yard, and discussed the cemetery. One of us mentioned age, said we’d seen some old folk’s graves. With the topic stalled on age, I asked Mrs. Miller, “What year were you born?”
She thought for a few seconds, then said, “1923, I think. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I was born in 1923. I had nine brothers and every last one of ‘em is dead.”
The year is 2013. If she was born in 1923 that would make her about ninety years old.
Licia got out of the truck and took photos of the two of us together, Mrs. Miller and me, both with our tobacco sticks, my face blushed and blotched from the blazing sun and oppressive heat, my hair wet with sweat and sticking to my head, and Mrs. Miller’s face the smooth color of hot cocoa, her hair in a kerchief.
After posing together, I snapped a few shots of her standing alone. Mrs. Miller said, “I don’t know why you so interested in taking pictures of me. I ain’t nothin’ special.”
I laughed and told her to hush and pose. She shared with our cameras the character in her face and the rusty beauty of old age, all the while talking, telling her story to us, complete strangers stopped on the dirt road in front of her house. And we were humbled.
Mrs. Miller’s closest family members were buried in the cemetery. She reminisced about a church that once stood nearby. “The church was right there at the cemetery, but it burned down.”
I asked her if she attended the church that burned, and her response wasn’t clear to me. I wasn’t sure if she meant she attended the church as a member or if she meant she had attended it from time to time as a visitor. Searching for clarification, I asked her again about the church. Impatience threaded in her voice, she said, “Yeah. I been to the church before it burned. I been there.”
I felt that she hadn’t answered the question, but I didn’t touch the topic again. I didn’t want to push her. Perhaps she thought it was none of my business.
The man returned with her walking stick and she took it. She told me to put her tobacco stick near the garbage can and leave it. “That baccer stick ain’t going nowhere. It’ll be fine right there. I’m gonna use my good stick to show you around the cemetery.”
Hal had remained in the truck, keeping cool, the air conditioner blowing cold air on his face and the windows down so he could listen to the conversation. I had left the passenger door open, and Mrs. Miller approached it, moving some of the conversation toward Hal. They spoke through the opened door. It didn’t take long for me to realize Mrs. Miller was the boss and she watched over the dead, taking the volunteer position seriously.
At last, we decided it was time to load up and head back to the cemetery, this time with Mrs. Miller. I took her cup of tea, put it down beside me, freeing her hands, and Licia and I prepared to help her into the truck. Hal’s Toyota sat high and I figured she couldn’t possibly get up without a boost. But I was wrong. I reached out to assist her, and she told me she didn’t need any help. “Leave me be and get my cup of iced tea. I’m gonna take it with me.”
Following Mrs. Miller’s instructions, I handed the red cup to Hal. Smiling, he put it in the console cup holder. I climbed in the backseat with Licia. We were grinning from ear to ear when Hal turned the truck around and headed toward the cemetery.
During the drive Mrs. Miller asked us where we were from. “Tifton,” Hal said.
“I used to go to Tifton but I don’t anymore. I don’t even know my way around Tifton.”
I asked where she went for her doctor’s appointments. In Valdosta or Tifton? “Doctor!” She turned to the back seat and frowned at me. “I ain’t got no doctor. Never needed one.”
At the cemetery, we traipsed around the graves. She pointed to a clear area and told me the burned church had been located in that spot. “It was a black folk’s church.”
“What kind of church?”
“A wooden church.”
“No. I mean was it Methodist?”
“No. It was a Baptist Church.”
“How old were you when it burned?”
“I was young. Real young.”
Mrs. Miller pointed out the graves of her mother and father. She showed me the grave of her husband and her nephew, and then I learned she had two husbands. Curious about her life, I asked several questions about her marriages, but she clammed up. It became evident that she wanted to talk about one husband and only one husband.
We walked side by side. I sneaked in a few questions about the men she married, but she wasn’t having it. From her limited responses, I couldn’t be sure if both husbands had been buried in the cemetery. She’d shown me only one grave.
At some point, when I wasn’t very attentive and was complaining about the heat, Mrs. Miller pointed at a grave and mumbled something I didn’t understand. Asking her to repeat herself, I hoped she would open up like a new book in the hands of an eager reader, but she turned her head and wouldn’t respond. I thought perhaps that when she had mumbled and pointed, she had been revealing to me the grave of the other husband.
Throughout the walk around the cemetery, I picked up bits and pieces of Mrs. Miller’s life, and I tried to put them together into something that made sense. She seemed to hold a grudge against her second husband and refused to use his surname. She had adopted the last name of her first husband: Willie Miller.
When I asked about the second husband again, for about the third time, she snapped at me, telling me she didn’t want to talk about that man, as though that man was buried in a coffin filled with contagious transgressions.
Although she refused to speak about one of her two husbands, twice, she took me to the grave of the husband she preferred, the grave beside the empty plot where she would one day be buried. From his headstone, I saw her favored husband had been dead since 1961. I asked her if any whites were buried in the cemetery. “No ma’am, no whites. Only blacks.”
I realized Mrs. Miller could talk nonstop, yet offer up little information. She left me as confused about her husbands as I could be. She had told me I could write about her, her life, and the cemetery, yet she was a professional at dodging questions.
She led us into the edge of the woods and we discovered under leaves a few graves we hadn’t seen before, but we were exhausted, too tired to undertake a major search for graves hidden by nature, too tired to go deep in the woods.
Mrs. Miller told us, “When somebody dies and ain’t got no money and ain’t got no place to put ‘em, I tell the family to just bring the body here cause I’m the boss around here. We got room. We got plenty of room for another body. And if somebody complains that the dead ain’t been a church-goer or ain’t led a good life, I just tells ‘em that’s between them and God. That ain’t no business of mine.”
She told me there were more graves in the woods, that I should come back and walk under the trees, that many of the slabs are no longer visible, and I promised her I would. Explaining that we had been out stomping through vines much of the day, explaining that the heat and exertion have left us worn out, I assured her I’d search in her woods when I wasn’t drooping from fatigue.
Mrs. Miller worries about the graves at Jerusalem Cemetery and what will become of them. She’d like for somebody to clean the place and show respect for the dead. She’s been known to shame people into mowing the main part of the cemetery, but she’s disappointed that the graveyard doesn’t receive regular cleaning. She talks to me about the plots I haven’t seen, the ones scattered in the woods, about graves hidden under leaves and dirt and roots, vanished like little children lost in the woods. You see, Mary Louise White Miller never had any children of her own, and she tends to the graves as if they were her babies.
To read more about May Louise White Miller go to Keeper of Graves.
Brenda Sutton Rose is the author of Dogwood Blues.
ABOUT DOGWOOD BLUES
Change has come to Dogwood, Georgia, dividing the town, friends against friends, neighbors against neighbors. With the liquor referendum on the ballot, signs, declaring VOTE YES, others declaring VOTE NO, many signs as tall as billboards, pop up in yards throughout the city limits. All of Dogwood has an opinion. And the local newspaper, Dogwood News, reports it all.
When Boone Marshall , a blues musician who inherits the family farm after his father’s death, brings home a new bride not long after his first wife’s suicide, Nell Sauls, the town busybody, goes bat crazy spreading rumors that have no substance. And when Kevin Kilmer, award-winning author, moves back to Dogwood, the town where he’d grown up, and brings with him a husband, Nell makes it her business to drop gossip like bird poop up and down the historic district.
Compared to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, to Cold Sassy Tree, and to the movie Steel Magnolias, Dogwood Blues is as southern and true as a story can be.
DOGWOOD BLUES by Brenda Sutton Rose was nominated for a 2015 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel. She has been the guest at numerous books clubs that chose Dogwood Blues as their book for the month. She has taught writing workshops at conferences for new and upcoming writers. Click here to purchase Dogwood Blues.
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