As cemeteries went, Annalee Rutledge supposed the one next to the Prince of Peace Episcopal Church on Greene Island, Georgia, was a pleasant sight to behold. Its battalions of stone Crosses and smooth granite slabs resembled those found in any other cemetery in the United States of America: some were old and cracked, while others were new and pristine; some were ornate, graced with weeping angels and soaring cherubs, while others were elegant in their simplicity. Yet owing to the efforts of parishioners who prized the natural beauty of Georgia's coast, and knew well how to incorporate that beauty into the grounds of their Church, the cemetery here resembled less a graveyard than some fine, sprawling English garden. Rows of burial spaces aside, the cemetery here was as suited to a shadowed castle boasting five hundred years of political intrigue and opulent living as it was to the plain white wooden Church nestled beside it—only instead of being populated by English roses and creeping ivy, this ten-acre stretch of land was swept with bulging Sego palms, massive, Spanish Moss-draped live oaks, and vibrant azaleas that bloomed pink, white, and blue in the springtime.
It was the kinship between the Prince of Peace Church cemetery and the traditional English garden that helped make today's planned activity a bit more palatable to Annalee. She had recently begun watching Downton Abbey on public television, and found that the more episodes of the program she viewed, the more enamored she became of the lives and mores of the British upper classes, at least in the post-Edwardian era. What knowledge Annalee now possessed of that long-vanished age—most of it derived from Abbey, with Wikipedia as a secondary source for additional historical background—she had used to invent a fantasy scenario to get her through the next couple of hours: she was imagining herself as a daughter of the aristocracy, accustomed to wealth and opulence, who nevertheless was pleased to sink down on her hands and knees in the dirt with the laborers on her family's estate and assist them in scrubbing down that estate's priceless statuary.
It was a nice daydream, albeit far from the truth. Rather than a Lord or Earl, Annalee's father was an amiable gentleman who sold insurance at his own agency, at which her mother served as his office manager; they were nice, down-to-earth people, hardly aristocratic in background or in bearing. Nor was Annalee doing any gardening today; instead, with a bucket of water and some gentle soap, she would be cleaning tombstones of deceased relatives, most of whom had left the world before she was born, and a few so shortly afterward she was unable to remember them. She would not have to perform this labor alone, however. The Rutledge party included not only Annalee, but also her grandmother, Susannah, whom she called Mamie, and her grandmothers' sisters, Roberta and Dorothy, known to Annalee and to the other seven grandchildren as Aunt Bertie and Aunt Dodie.
Annalee Rutledge was fourteen years old as of the beginning of this month, which was March. Her Aunt Bertie was the next youngest of the women she was accompanying into the cemetery today; she was five times Lindsay's age. Mamie was seventy-two and Dodie, seventy-seven. They were slender, elegant women, all of them tall with cottony white hair, graceful not only in stride but also in the general way they carried themselves. The senior Rutledge ladies all had a delicacy about them that Annalee felt she lacked. Though not overweight, she often found herself wishing her bones were just a little finer, her neck a bit longer, her waist slightly narrower…hers was not a masculine physique, but neither was it as feminine as she desired, and she had marked this coming summer as the season in which she would make herself beautiful. She was going to tan ritualistically, and experiment with some new colors and styles for her presently straight and naturally chestnut-colored hair, and buy a whole bunch of new clothes thanks to the part-time job she was going to get (whatever it turned out to be). She did not consider herself ugly—at least not most of the time—but she did think of herself as rather plain. And she was tired of feeling plain.
Beautiful, Annalee had promised herself time and again over the last few months. This summer, I'm going to be beautiful.
"Honey, I just can't tell you how glad we are to have you along with us this morning," Mamie said to her as they neared the family plot. "It's such a big help."
"No problem," Annalee said. Actually, it was a problem, just not enough of one to cause her to try to wriggle out of it when her grandmother's call came this past Friday, in the late afternoon, bearing a plea for assistance. For today was Monday, the first day of Spring Break, and Annalee, like other schoolchildren in the county, would be off the entire week, which meant she had the time to spare, at least this once. She had wanted to say no but knew she would feel guilty if she did. Sometimes having morals was a real pain.
Aunt Dodie seconded with, "We're just getting too old to handle this by ourselves."
Annalee gave a feeble "Yes, ma'am" as acknowledgement, but wondered just what Aunt Dodie meant by that remark. Was it to be taken at face value, as an admission that the ladies simply couldn't perform this ritual—once a month in the spring and summer—as they had for the last twenty-five years? Or was she was hinting that someone else, someone younger, ought to assume the job?
And, if so, who?
Not me, Annalee thought, no way.
At last they reached the Rutledge site.
"All right, girls," Mamie said, pulling on a pair of yellow rubber gloves, "let's get down to business."
Annalee learned, to her chagrin, that the older women did not speak much while they worked. In other venues—Thanksgiving dinners, Independence Day celebrations, family gatherings at Christmas—words flowed between them in sparkling torrents, taking the form of clever ripostes, humorous anecdotes, and conspiratorially whispered gossip; it was a pleasure for Annalee just to listen to them talk. But in the cemetery their behavior was muted and serious. They grimly, and in virtual silence, attacked the dirt and sponge mold that had crept onto the stones marking the final resting places of their loved ones. The cemetery had a full-time groundskeeper and by all accounts he did a fine job of keeping up the place; but Annalee understood why her grandmother and great-aunts might feel a strange man could never give adequate attention to the people these women had loved and said goodbye to during their long lives: three husbands, a mother, a father, and—in Roberta's case—an eight-year-old son struck and killed by a car in 1973.
Perhaps because there was so little dialogue the work got done faster today; Mamie had asked for two hours of Annalee's time but after ninety minutes the family headstones were shining in the sun.
"Folks need a nice place to sleep," Dodie said as the women stood there, admiring their work. Then they began to pack up the cleaning supplies.
As Annalee wrung out her dirty sponge at the base of a nearby crepe myrtle, she noticed a small headstone, carved from rough granite, about five paces away. It was the only headstone in what appeared to be an otherwise unused plot, and having coming this way on numerous occasions in the past Annalee was surprised she'd never noticed it. Then again, obscured by shrubbery, it was easy to miss; only from where Annalee stood now was it clearly visible. The drab, mottled headstone was unadorned but for a simple Cross with an inscription below that read:
Matthew Nehemiah Hawkins
January 27, 1850 – December 13, 1864
Fourteen, Annalee thought. He was fourteen—my age.
Two years ago a girl she had known since kindergarten had passed away from leukemia. Annalee had not been close friends with this girl, whose name was Gwendolyn, but had played over at her house a couple of times when they were small children. Over the years, though, Annalee had seen less and less of her, and by the time the two of them reached middle school their friendship had largely dissipated. Eventually word got around that the girl was very sick and could not come to school anymore; not long after that, an obituary for one Gwendolyn Lee Abbot appeared in the newspaper. Annalee, in the wake of the girl's death, had found herself anguished and guilt-ridden over having not stayed better friends with poor lost Gwendolyn. But there was something else—a more selfish reason, in Annalee's opinion—that she shared with no one. It was that she'd never had somebody her age, or somebody even close to her age, die before; and she found the experience odd and deeply unsettling. The tragedy of Gwendolyn Abbot had struck just a little too close.
But here, now, lay a boy Annalee could never have known; a boy who would have been elderly when these other women were born, had he survived that long. She was sorry for Matthew Hawkins, yes, but he was from another era. His life—and his death—were far removed from Annalee Rutledge, a girl living in coastal Georgia in the early years of the twenty-first century.
So why does it bother me so much to see his grave?
I'm just being silly here.
She turned, walked back to Mamie and her great-aunts. Yet even as she approached the women she felt the words building up inside of her, craving release.
Don't, Annalee urged herself. Don't ask. Don't!
She could not fight it, though. She was curious. She wanted to learn.
"Mamie," she said, coming up beside her grandmother.
"Do you know anything about that grave over there?" Annalee pointed to the little headstone, almost hoping that Mamie, whose knowledge of the cemetery was unparalleled among the congregation of Prince of Peace Church, would draw a blank on this one. For then the Rutledge ladies would have no choice but to leave the cemetery, piling back into Mamie's Cadillac for the trip home. Annalee, for her part, could expect to quickly lose interest in what had turned out to be an unanswerable question—perhaps in just a matter of days. It would all be over, at that point.
But her grandmother knew, perhaps not remarkably.
"Oh, yes," Mamie said. "That's the little Hawkins boy. I believe he died in the War."
Every conflict in which the United States had taken part was The War, according to her grandmother's lexicon. Sometimes the War meant the Vietnam War, and sometimes it was the Korean War, and sometimes it was World War Two. In this case, given Annalee's general knowledge of United States history, she understood the War to which her grandmother referred today to be the Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, also known as the War Between the States.
"Are there are any Hawkins family members left?" Annalee asked. "Do you know?"
Oh, stop it, you idiot. You know where you're going with this, and it's crazy.
"I think they've all pretty much gone away by now," answered her grandmother. "I've never heard of any of their descendants being members of this Church."
Don't do it, Annalee. Don't ask if you can clean his headstone too.
"Would it be okay if I used some of our stuff to clean this one?"
You just couldn't help yourself, could you? What's the matter with you? Don't you want to leave?
But Annalee felt obliged to make a gesture of kindness toward this boy. She didn't know why. It just seemed…right.
"Why, sure," her grandmother said, brightening. "I don't see anything wrong with that. Do you, sisters?"
The other two women shook their heads. They actually seemed quite pleased.
"Go right on ahead," said Roberta. "I think that's awfully sweet of you, to want to help him out like that."
"It won't take but a second," Annalee promised them.
She picked up the bucket, refilled it with water and mixed in a few drops of soap, and then carried it along with her sponge over to the lonely grave of Matthew Nehemiah Hawkins. The other Rutledge women busied themselves inspecting the shrubbery that surrounded the family plot, discussed what special favors they might ask of the groundskeeper next time he came around. Annalee was pretty sure they couldn't hear her; still, she lowered her voice as she went down on her haunches next to the boy's headstone.
"Hi, Matthew," she said. "I'm Annalee."
Then, very gently, she began to clean.
After a few minutes, Annalee decided the headstone looked about as good as it was going to look, at least given the tools she had. Though not as pretty as she'd envisioned, certainly it appeared in better shape now than it had before.
Sitting back on her heels, she asked herself:
Why did I do all that? I mean, what was the point?
And now she got to her feet.
It was just a nice thing to do. I guess that was the point. And that's enough, right?
"Bye, Matthew," Annalee whispered to the headstone.
Then she turned away, headed back to the others.
"So did you get him all fixed up?" Dodie asked as Annalee rejoined them.
"Yes, ma'am," Annalee said, "all fixed up."
"That was awfully sweet of you," Mamie said again, and while Annalee may have appreciated the sentiment, she didn't want to be told she was being sweet, especially a second time. It made her feel like a child—although she was sure that was how these women perceived her, and likely always would. But it was no big deal.
That really was sweet of me, though, wasn't it?
For some reason, as Annalee went down on her haunches again to help her grandmother and great-aunts gather up the last of their cleaning supplies, she got this strange tingly feeling. She thought, at first, it was just pride in her small act of kindness; but no, here was something different. Heat was rising in her chest; her skin was prickling; and she feared that at the slightest jest she might burst out laughing. It was the sort of feeling she'd gotten, Annalee realized suddenly, when a boy she liked showed signs of liking her back.
How strange, she thought, to have that feeling now.
You're so weird today.
Moments later, as the Rutledge women filed out of the cemetery, Annalee cast a single backward glance in the direction of the Hawkins boy's grave.
Don't worry, Matt—I'll come see you again.