where the writers are
Ghost Story

My husband and I like to visit cemeteries. In Santa Fe, New Mexico we took the dogs away from the crowded Plaza and headed instead to the oldest graveyard in town, a quiet, neglected strip of land on a busy street in a noisy, industrial neighborhood. Pull through the gates in late winter or early spring, and what you'll find are bare trees. Dead weeds. Row after row of gravel lanes, pocked with holes where the prairie dogs have burrowed under the caskets. Headstones marked with German names. Hispanic names. Some dating to the Civil War. Some, older still, broken away, names missing. Some of the newest are handmade: wooden boards inscribed with what looks, oddly, like silly-string, but on closer inspection turns out to be bright blue caulk. In one corner lie nothing but children who died in 1939. "Baby Boy." "Baby Lady." "Whom," one inscription goes on, "our arms never held, yet now hold so dear."

I jump at a sound. It's a pick-up truck pulling fast through the gates. Something about its speed and the scowl of the driver tells me we're in trouble. My husband puts the dogs on leash and waits to one side.

The driver pulls up to me. He seems angry.

"You're trespassing. And your dogs have to be leashed in this town."

I nod carefully at the strong, heavy-set Hispanic face with its light speckling of freckles. Something about writing this blog has taught me not to assume all hope is lost when two wary human beings meet for the first time.

"I'm very sorry," I say as my husband leads the dogs away. "We couldn't resist. This cemetery is so amazing. Beautiful. Does it have a name?"

"It doesn't have a name. It's private. And the dogs have to be--"

"I'm really sorry again. You're absolutely right. They're leashed now. But it's just so beautiful here, we couldn't resist coming in." I introduce myself. "Are you taking care of this beautiful place?"

He relaxes a bit, points to a red adobe house at the edge of the property.

"That's mine. And those are my German Shepherds, there. They're trained to chase intruders out. They're chained right now, or they could have seriously hurt your dogs."

That explained his anxiety. And now he goes on to explain, relaxing a bit more, that he and his wife have taken over the cemetery, after years and years of neglect, crime and vandalism. They were very protective of it.

"It doesn't have a name," he repeats. "A hundred years ago, it used to be something for the rich ladies of Santa Fe to take care of. But then it got handed to foundation after foundation, and each of 'em took worse care of it than the last." He shakes his long black hair over his steering wheel. "You should have seen it then."

After the state of New Mexico retired the cemetery's debts, including an unpaid $100,000 water bill, Pete, a landscaper, was allowed to take it on--providing he planted new trees and removed the dead ones, and obeyed a new law that didn't allow him to plant or water any grass.

"So," Pete sighs, "that's why it looks the way it does. But the families of the deceased are just glad someone's taking care of the place now. Used to be a drug den. The dealers would hide the stuff in the urns. Someone would come to pick it up. But I'm not afraid of thugs. I'm retired military, Special Ops. Airborne. I was in Columbia during the drug wars. I was there when we, you know, weren't there. So punks don't mess with me. It's just the prairie dogs that are the trouble now."

Especially the ones that liked to bring skeletal human hands and bits of chewed coffin to the surface.

"The families don't like that," Pete tells me.

"What do you do?"

"I have to gas them. I don't like that, either."

He points to some land connected to the cemetery and tells me it's where a concentration camp once stood. "That's where they put the Japanese during World War II. The barracks were right there. That wasn't so good, either."

"Is it scary here sometimes?"

"Yes. You see things. My wife and I both do."

"Like . . . ?"

There was a little girl. Both he and his wife had seen her many times. She seemed to live in their house. A white girl in a white dress, with short blond hair. She liked to let the dogs off their chains. They would hear her, and come out into the yard to find the dogs free.

I remembered all the children's graves in the corner.

"What happened in 1939 that so many people died, Pete?"

"Smallpox. They just . . . died. Santa Fe was just a hole in the wall in the old days. No medicine. No real doctors."

"Are you afraid of ghosts?"

His tattooed arms grip the steering wheel. "No. The spirits only bother you if you're a bad person. And I take care of this place. I planted all these trees. You should come back in the summer. It looks different then. Really green."

"I think it's wonderful you're bringing this place back to life."

"Well . . . I try. But sometimes it's not easy. The records are so bad. One time, when a film crew was here, we accidentally dug up an unmarked grave. There are all kinds of people under our feet we don't even know about."

"I guess we just have to be careful."

"You do. If you come back, keep your dogs on a leash."

"We will. Thanks."

We shook hands. As I leaned into the window I noticed Pete's black boots, his black jeans and his black sweatshirt with the full, black hood behind it.

--MD

Comments
9 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Amazed

I'm happy to hear that my husband and I are not the only ones that like to visit cemeteries. They hold history and stories, and transport us to a different time.

In Texas there are hundreds of very old, very small graveyards.
It's interesting just to see what the life-span was; how many ladies died in childbirth. Interesting to find headstones that have a photo beneath glass. Interesting to find in the larger cemeteries people making rubbings from the stones.

We find "family" graveyards - only ten or twelve tombstones. We find church graveyards - the church is still there. And not more than twenty or so graves.

Thank you for a most interesting post. And the dialogue between Pete and your husband.

Comment Bubble Tip

Cemeteries hold community stories

Hi Mylene and Sharon,

I love visiting cemeteries, too. You learn so much. I did rubbings on a class trip in middle school of the gravestones and wanted to always do that in the places I visited in France.

I have always thought the folks with the simplest gravestones had the fewest regrets about leaving life. Buddhists and others who are cremated seem to have none.

Ruth

Comment Bubble Tip

Hi Sharon

Hi Sharon--I adore the graveyards in Texas. One of my favorites is the old one on Broadway in Galveston--have you been there? And do you remember how a stretch of highway outside Houston years ago literally divided around a small plot with very old headstones? No more. I used to love that bit of highway.

Thanks for your lovely comment.

M

Comment Bubble Tip

Ghosts and Guests

I have not been to the one in Galveston.  I will have to do that.  We have visited so many tiny yards from Bay City to Houston - and several in the Lake Jackson Area.  There is a small cemetery called "Mim's Cemetery" - it is a tiny community called Mim. An alley divides it from a beauty shop.  Called the Hair Saloon.  

 We are leaving for Texas on the 13th (have been in Nevada for a month). I think we will be planning a trip to Galveston.

 It feels strange when you drive between the two plots. It's on Texas 35 just before you reach 288. I think that's the one you're talking about.  On one side of the street there are maybe 8 headstones - on the other it looks more like 12 or 15. There is no name on the cemetery. For a long time, we just assumed it was a small family plot from the 1800s.

 Thank you for replying.  

Comment Bubble Tip

Hi Ruth

Hi Ruth--thanks for your comment--I do love rubbings. I have two in my bedroom, male and female figures, taken from a church at Bury St. Edmond's, in England. They watch over my husband and me. I feel quite safe with them nearby. Curious.

I've had the same thought as you, looking at neglected, regretful, elaborate crypts in cemeteries: how anxious these people were to live on, and how, even under the best marble, they can't.

M

Comment Bubble Tip

New Mexico Magic

Mylene, What a beautiful way to commemorate those rubbings. I love New Mexico, too. I took a brief trip there and spent most of my time in Albuquerque and Taos, because we literally could not find a parking spot in Santa Fe. :)

I define New Mexico as art, art, art everywhere. People write and make beautiful things there. I never thought I could be happy away from the ocean, but it felt okay. I loved the hot chiles used in the cuisine and liked all the ristras, dangling red chiles you could find. I want to write about the trip there one day.

Like I said, I felt like I had walked into a creative vein that stimulated me from all angles in New Mexico. I never thought to look in a cemetery though and I usually always visit one and a grocery store to get the feel of a place. Thanks for the great posting - it's nice to not always contemplate politics. Ruth

Comment Bubble Tip

I love this.

This is great. I never knew people visited grave yards for pleasure. I have always feared them. I always believed the ghost stories and felt the dead did not want to be disturbed. This is a very intriguing story.

Comment Bubble Tip

Thanks, Kristi

Thanks, Kristi. I have the feeling, when I visit a cemetery, that I'm not disturbing the dead, but rather paying attention to them. I find myself literally saying hello, and then the name on the grave, and then sometimes, "I see you."

Nothing, I hope, that a ghost would take offense to!

M

Comment Bubble Tip

keeping the peace

it's interesting, Kristi, and Mylene, I never thought about disturbing the dead either. I somehow feel like we are honoring them. often times, many of the cemeteries we visit seem to be poorly attended to. There are shrines, and tall headstones overshadowed by huge angels, and that's the only semblance of care.

We see large crosses, some gothic, and simple stones looking hand-carved;and there are times I wonder how long it has been since a living soul has been there to visit, and read the bits of information that help to explain all that transpired in the 'dash'.

There is the date of birth, and then the dash, and finally the date of departure. Looking at pictures, reading the epitaphs, we try to fill in the 'dash'.