Down East 2013 ©
By Jen Blood
Two headstones with the surname “Jealous” stand opposing one another between avenues four and five in the Thomaston Cemetery. I used to imagine two nefarious brothers buried there, the placement of the stones symbolic of a longstanding grudge carried into the afterlife. In reality, an entire Jealous family is memorialized in that spot; in my mind, however, the site will always belong to the Jealous boys and a feud I concocted as a child with nothing better to do than create backstories for characters long dead.
To say I spent a large part of my childhood in the cemetery would be an understatement. In the days before children’s museums and day camps and dog parks, it wasn’t as though there were a lot of choices. There was the leech-infested waterfall out behind the Henry farm, or the broken-down playground frequented by the biggest, meanest boys in town. Or there was the cemetery.
I’ve found that people from “away” look at me strangely when I tell them my friends and I spent our formative years playing tag among the tombstones. Natives, however — those lucky souls who grew up in the sometimes-claustrophobic embrace of a tiny Maine town — know just what I’m talking about. In rural Maine, the cemetery is often the most lively place around.
In my hometown of Thomaston, the town graveyard spans ten maple-lined avenues, only one of which is paved. I learned to ride my bike on that single paved avenue, and skinned my knee a hundred times braving the ruts on the dirt lanes nearby. My childhood friend, Jenn, was lucky enough to grow up right across the street from the cemetery. At her birthday parties, we would play hide-and-seek on the grounds and tell ghost stories at dusk with our dusty young behinds settled on stones dating back as early as the 1700s. It never occurred to any of us that we were being disrespectful. We were just looking for somewhere to be — and what better place on a cool summer night than a peaceful expanse of green grass with ready-made sitting stones?
I moved back to Thomaston three years ago, after nearly a decade away. These days, I begin almost every day by walking my dogs up and down those same maple-lined avenues. Jenn’s Dad, Peter, is now the town sexton, charged with keeping vandals out and tombstones tidy. He has become a familiar face on these walks. The dogs perk up when they hear his voice, as do I — he always has biscuits for them, and equally well-received graveyard gossip for me.
Now I know more than which stones are good for sitting and which are perfect for hiding behind. I know about grave markers and drainage problems, property disputes (which, amazingly enough, don’t go away even after one has crossed over), and mowing schedules. Watching over those who have passed before us, it turns out, is complicated business.
When my brother returned home, he and his wife bought a house just down the road from the cemetery. They live there now with my two nieces, making a life for themselves in our quiet hometown. The other day, my oldest niece, Maggie, turned four. For her birthday, she got her first bicycle. Though today the midcoast has plenty of playgrounds, Maggie’s maiden voyage took place on that solitary stretch of paved road in the cemetery.
It was a cool day, a light breeze rustling the grass and the white-blonde hair of my young nieces. A pinwheel spun on a nearby grave; chimes sounded quietly in the distance. Watching Maggie pedal unsteadily away while her little sister, Maya, raced along behind, I found myself thinking of what this place will mean to the two of them as they get older. Will they find sanctuary in the same quiet places? Glance over the same forgotten names and whisper the ghost stories I shivered at when I was their age? Or will they find their own quiet places and write their own spine-tingling tales?
Regardless of whether the ghost stories they tell are all new or generations old, I find myself oddly reassured to know that the cemetery will remain relatively unchanged. People will come and quietly grieve, children will play, the spirits of those who came before will give voice in wind chimes and rustling leaves, and the Jealous boys will doubtlessly inspire generations of storytellers to come. My nieces, ideally, among them.