When I was seven, my mom married my stepfather and we all moved to Middle-of-Nowhere, VT, pop. 700. My mailing address was Chelsea G. Summers, Middle-of-Nowhere, VT O5555. Were you to have sent me a postcard, it would have gone to a post office about the size of my current bedroom. I would have walked the half-mile to the boudoir-sized post office to pick up said postcard, and if you’d sent it to me after the age of nine, I would have done so with a large St. Bernard padding along beside me.
My family lived in a converted two-room schoolhouse. Initially, we only rented the right half, but then the grandmother of my mom’s high school friend sold the house to my parents, and we had the whole drafty, poorly renovated hydra-house, and sometimes rented out the left half. To the exact right of us lived an old German couple in an old American farmhouse. To the left and behind us rolled out a carpet of farmland, a sometime home to a herd of Holsteins, and in the spring, many frogs who sang their guttural songs about eggs and flies and the pain of pollywogs and other chthonic frog songs. Beyond the field was a bilious green house owned by a family named Moody. They shared our party phone line. Mrs. Moody drew on her eyebrows. The Moodys had gun racks made out of deer hooves, the deers’ little hooves pointed eternally up, ironically bearing the method of their own destruction.That house always smelled like the bottom of a grease can.
In front of us was a wide ribbon of field. White in the winter, green in the summer and brown the rest of the year, the field unfurled to a river. On the other side of the river were more hills, a string of houses that at night lit up like Christmas lights, and a big red barn where square dances were held. Women went to there dressed in poufy little skirts held aloft by crinolines ethereal as mounds of egg whites. Men wore string ties. I imagine that on Sunday nights these people watched Hee-Haw and enjoyed it.
To the far right, beyond the German couple’s home, beyond the sliver of woods behind and the evanescent pond before, a pond that sometimes froze in the winter and the local boys would play hockey, and I would skate alone thinking of Dorothy Hamill, beyond all that lay our local graveyard.
Like any proper graveyard, it was limned in pointed metal fencing. The very best dead real estate—the graves closest to the road and fading gently back—were the oldest graves. Set amid great dark trees, these stones were fragile, the dates and names worn down to gentle depressions as if by the constant touch of breath-quiet fingers. These carvings had become shadows of themselves: the most apparitional ivy, the flirtation of an angel, the barest filigree of skeleton. Many whole families gathered together under the ground as their tombstones grew equal portions of lichen and disrepair. Often, the family had gathered together the same year, the same month, the same week. I imagined some great felling by ague, calenture or chilblains, some illness I’d gleaned from compulsive reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
As the graveyard unfurled uphill, as the trees gave way, as the ground grew sandy enough to support wild strawberries, the graves grew older, firmer and colored. Here were names of families I recognized. Here were stolid, solid graves, not those vulnerable wafer headstones so popular with Victorian dying. Here, where the gravestones were warmed by the sun, away from the shadowy crypts lining the far darkest right wall, the fancy flew. These graves were unabashedly pragmatic, whole and discrete, and sometimes decorated with plastic flowers that never wilted but rather turned ever paler in the sun.
I spent a lot of time with the dead of Middle-of-Nowhere, VT. For many of them, I was their only visitor. I’d wander through the graveyard singing Judy Collins songs; if anyone had seen both sides now, these people had. I trailed my fingers over names strange and familiar and do the math. If Constance B. Haskwell had died in 1856 and been born in 1847, then she was nine or so, I’d think, and see this girl around my age dressed in picturebook pinafore and tights grow ill and feverish and expire, a white pale light in a nightgown, because I read a lot. I indulged in much literary-flavored visualizing and did much math in the cemetery.
In early summer, I’d walk through the upper aeries of the graveyard looking for berries and reciting Hamlet’s various death soliloquies. To be or not to be, that is the question, I’d say and paw through a black raspberry bush. To die, to sleep, perchance to dream, I’d confess to a particularly monolithic pink granite grave. Ay, there’s the rub, I’d say, and wonder what Walter Patrick Elmer dreamed of, if he dreamed of all. The speech usually ran out around “contumely,” a word that I would look up again and again and always forget what it meant. To this day, I can’t recall. A display of contempt, it turns out. I just looked it up again.
I liked the graveyard. It was quiet. It had drama. It held that faint frisson of ooginess. It felt comfortable. In retrospect, I suppose I’ve always been a morbid girl, for all of my Malibu Barbie looks. The woods behind my house may have had this terribly attractive stream and many rotting logs under which I could look when I felt like playing naturalist. The river in front of my house might have had a lovely river for plashing around in when I felt like giving my inner naiad a twirl. The cows may have been there when I wanted to feed large things and smell their patient odor. But it was the graveyard that worked the greatest mental magic. I was alone there, and I was not.
I’d more or less forgotten my time with the dead people, but then I read Neil Gaiman’s Newbery award winning The Graveyard Book. The story of Nobody Owens growing up in graveyard surrounded by ghosts and one kindly vampire who would bring him bananas and crisps jostled my memory enough to release that cemetery nostalgia. Seemingly alone in Middle-of-Nowhere, VT, removed from people my own age, plunked down in this grim and verdant place with my mother and a usurper father, I discovered this place of ghosts held a kind of logic. Where else could a ten-year-old girl recite Shakespeare with impunity and great volume?
Before writing this, I looked at Google maps to see if I could find a street-level view of my graveyard. The street-level van apparently has yet to make it to the Middle-of-Nowhere. There are only satellite views, and they reveal a Middle-of-Nowhere that is now the Middle-of-Somewhere. I see the aluminum roof of my old house gleam dully. The woods behind my house are much diminished. The river before it dried up. There are new houses to the left and to the far right. And the graveyard, most tragically, seems to be gone. Maybe it simply doesn’t show up on the satellite photo, those little dots of crumbling stone and those blocks of moldering granite. But there’s a new road—a large, wildly looping road—that seems to be where the graveyard once was.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope it’s just a trick of the light, of the lens, of the space. I hope that the Middle-of-Nowhere graveyard lives on. I hope the graves molder and the leaves fall and the berries come and that they are all appreciated. I hope that someone, sometime, visits that graveyard and invites, as I did, the dead to play.