We lived in Helena, Arkansas and I was thirteen. In the summer I'd make a sack lunch, take a book, hop on my bike, and ride off across the hills and ravines to the Civil War cemetery that draped across a hill, the old tombstones rising step by step up into thick woods. It was a well-kept place, with the pathways smooth dirt; the grassy areas where the graves resided was the green of emerald deep water. Black cast iron gates opened at the bottom and I would push my bike, lunch sack in the basket, up the path. I was alone and relished the pure peace emanating from this place. I'd been taught in school about the Civil War and here lay many of that war's dead. Yet it wasn't a sad place and I felt no unhappy spirits lingering. It felt more like a lovely park for imaginative children than a haunted arena of long lost souls.
I'd turn off the path into the smaller paths leading between the graves. Later I discovered there had been a tremendous battle in Helena, with the Confederates defending the city and the Union in massive war ships coming in their determined way down the Mississippi River to raid and conquer. Hundreds of tombstones lay on this long hill testifying to the outcome.
I'd put aside my bike, and walk slowly, softly among the tombstones, curiously reading the names and dates of death. No one ever seemed to visit this open, historical cemetery. I was always alone and preferred it that way. No one worried about their children going off on their own for the day unaccompanied. I never felt threatened, worried, or afraid some male stranger might come by to whisk me into oblivion. It never crossed my mind the way it would today.
I found peace in this ancient cemetery. I contemplated the battle these soldiers had fought, the pure bravery, misery, and insanity of it all. I'd run my hand over the rough, pitted stone of the angels and statues. After visiting with the dead, I'd return to my bike and get the book and the lunch. I'd go walking again and find a spot on the amazing grass in shade and lean my back against a tombstone. There hours would pass as the sun skimmed over the surrounding forest, the tombstone shadows leaning, upright, then leaning again down toward twilight.
Birds sang and that's all. No person traversed this place and through the summer I began to feel it was my special, secret place, the only place I could find quiet and harmony. At noon I'd eat my meager lunch--baloney sandwich and sometimes an apple or banana. I'd grow sleepy and doze a bit sitting up.
No one came to intrude. I was not lonely or sad or afraid. It was peace I sought and peace I found. I went to this cemetery day after day, many times throughout that summer. One day a friend who lived down the street and with whom I crossed the levee and went down into the delta left fertile and growing corn until the Mississippi came roaring back into the land, asked me where I went every day on my bike. "You don't come back until almost dark," she said.
I told her I'd take her there, my place, and show her. The next morning we both rode off on our bikes and when I turned into the black gates with the toothy stones sticking up row after row up the hillside, my friend paused, stopping abruptly at the gate. "This is a cemetery," she said.
I told her I knew that, come on in, it wasn't scary at all. She came slowly following behind me and I showed her the marvelous pathways, the soft grass, the names and sayings and dates on the markers. None of the tombstones leaned. It was all as pristine and perfect as cookies laid out on a slanting platter.
"But what do you do here? It's so empty."
No, it was filled, I told her, absolutely crammed with people but they were silent now and left me alone.
Her eyebrows rose and I knew then, if not before, that I might be an eccentric child. Today thirteen year old girls wear make-up and short tops and dance to music I don't understand. In my thirteenth year I was a child, a real child, a little girl. Yes, I was on the cusp of becoming woman, but not today, not on this day.
We sat and nibbled on our lunches while I went on about how marvelous was this place. How silent and peaceful. How welcoming. I urged my friend to listen to the birdsong. I pointed to where the shadows grew and withdrew. I told her to listen, just listen, and wasn't it the best silence she'd ever heard? No adults talking, no car horns, no radio music. It was pure here and clean and peace lay over it all. When here I walked carefully not to step on a grave. I tried not to rustle my paper sack too loudly or scrape the rocks on the path with my bike tires. If there was serenity anywhere in Helena, Arkansas it was here and only here and I'd luckily discovered it, my secret hideout.
We left early and I don't remember that girl being much of a friend anymore. I understand the reasoning for that now, but it was a little hurtful at thirteen. What had I done so wrong? Was it weird to like to spend time reading and dozing in a cemetery of the war dead?
But I wasn't going to change or pretend I was not interested and happy in the Civil War cemetery. I still rose early, slipped out of the house with my lunch sack and book, and ran off on my bike every day I could.
It's possible that's the place where I learned to concentrate. I learned so well that when grown and working as a novelist I could hold a thought in my head, leave it to get my children water or food, come back and pick up with the very next word in the middle of a sentence.
It's the place that taught me not to fear the dead and their brethren. After so many years they'd departed those grassy graves or they lay quietly waiting. They had no truck with the living world, having done their best and moving on.
Odd places like cemeteries can be a place of not just solitude, but of learning, and of acceptance of one's own strangeness.
We will all go there, those who desire burial, into the earth. Having spent a summer in a graveyard was an adventure, a revelation, and one of the best summers I remember.
I don't know how the cemetery fares today, but being a national one I expect it to be the same. Gray stones rising up and up and up until the woods halt the advance. Acres of the dead reminding us of what civil strife can cause, of what we can head toward if we begin to hate one another because of race or discontent.
But once we load the musket, bring it to the shoulder to aim, and let loose Death against another man, woman, or child then we at least might meet the dark grave and grow at last cold and silent. It's even possible a little girl walks the paths above us, reading her books and dreaming easily of days past and future.