“The old cemetery,” as Ms. Medwin called it, lies near the center of town and is the place where the original settlers of Franconia, Ohio, buried their dead for a few generations. Later, as churches began to form in the community, each created its own cemetery, at first right alongside the church building but then, later, as space became a problem, out on the edge of town in what once had been farmland.
And when that happened, the old cemetery fell into disuse, and it wasn’t until the Franconia Historical Society formed years ago that anyone really paid much attention to it. Oh, the town of Franconia cut the grass, that sort of thing—can’t have something messy and ugly right near the center of town, you know. The Historical Society built a wrought-iron fence around the property and began maintaining the gravesites more carefully. Some of the stones had fallen. Vandals had broken up others. And some had become almost impossible to read because they’d been made of sandstone, which always loses long battles with the weather. The Society also installed an arched wrought-iron gateway to the property, with a sign atop: Franconia Settlers Cemetery. I guess it was too hard to put an apostrophe after the s. Father pointed it out to me even before I knew what an apostrophe is. All the kids just called it “Settlers.”
Our class was excited to go over to Settlers in the middle of a school day—on what the school called a “walking field trip.” Not as much fun as getting on a bus and going somewhere distant—somewhere so far away that it meant a stop on the way home at a fast-food place. Now that, in a seventh grader’s eyes, is a good field trip! Of course, the school was being very careful about field trips now after the one last year to Middle Island in the Ohio River—that trip that featured some horrors that many were still trying to forget.[i]
Still … a “walking field trip” was infinitely better than no field trip. So we were excited, as I’ve said. That morning of 7 November it was dark and foggy—appropriate for a cemetery trip—but not too cold (near 50), though we had to wear wet weather jackets. A little rain in the forecast.[ii]
Ms. Medwin had not told us much about what we were going to do—but we had to bring a notebook and something to write with. So as soon as our earlier classes were over, we hurried to our lockers, got out jackets, put everything away except what she’d told us we’d need, then hurried to the classroom. She took attendance—and off we went.
As I said, Settlers wasn’t too far from the school, and we were all in a pretty excited mood, mostly because we didn’t have to be in class for a while. I felt someone beside me. Looked. Gil.
“What do you think we’re going to do?” he asked.
“Oh, probably just, you know, get in the mood to write something like those Spoon River pieces.”
“I guess,” he said.
I noticed he was having to work a little bit to keep up with me. I slowed—then teased him a little. “I should have brought a wagon to pull you in.”
“A little red one,” he said. “And I could’ve dressed up like a fireman.”
I laughed. He took teasing a lot better than I did.
“Thanks for slowing up a little,” he said. “I’m just a little tired. Didn’t sleep too well.”
“Dreams about Ms. Medwin?” I teased.
“It’s so creepy,” he said, “that you can read my dreams.”
It wasn’t too long before we arrived, and Ms. Medwin had us assemble by the arched entryway. “Now,” she said, “after we’d sort of quieted down, “here’s what we’re going to do. I want you to spread out around the cemetery and find a grave that interests you in some way.”
Some boy said, “Can we dig it up?”
Lots of cries of “Gross!” and “Sick!”
Ms. Medwin looked at him sharply, then softened. “Only if you want extra credit,” she said. And we all laughed.
“So, when you find a grave that interests you,” she said, “I want you to write some things in your notebook about the gravestone—what it looks like, its size, what it says on it. Then,” she went on, “I want you to imagine who that person was. Thinking about the person’s emotions. What did that person love? Or hate? What did he or she achieve? Or fail to achieve? What were the good things in that person’s life? The bad things?”
A raised hand. Ms. Medwin said, “Yes?”
“But we don’t know who the person really was.”
“It doesn’t matter for this assignment,” she said. “Just use your imagination. Create something that makes sense to you.” A pause. “Any more questions?”
There weren’t. So off we went in search of graves.