May 18, 2014, 8:45 a.m. Pensacola
The female GPS voice crisply announces “Destination,” as I pull up slowly along North G Street, in the St. John’s Coalition neighborhood in Pensacola. I feel my stomach know up with anxiety. It’s not logical; there’s no reason for anxiety, but it is what I feel.
St. John’s Cemetery is on my left. I see the green and white gatehouse at the intersection of West Belmont and North G. The gatehouse looks to have been built around the early 1900s, so the driveway is not as wide as a modern one would be. I drive slowly through, taking the structure in, looking up and around. The structure is solid; at least 100 years old.
Emmett drove through this back then, I realize. As I do today.
I stop about 50 feet away from the gatehouse, on the right hand side of the road. Up ahead, parked on the other side is another van, but the side doors are open and a lady with a little girl are sitting on the side, feet on the ground. The lady nods politely at me as she hands the little girl a sippy cup. I wave, leaving my car in idle as I pull out my map and get my bearings.
Emmett’s close by, I realize, as I check the burial grid provided by St. John’s Cemetery:
Well, here goes, I think, as I pick up my coffee cup, grab my bag.
I take a deep breath — I wonder — hope — there will be some kind of psychic pull, or jolt, or spiritual event when I get to Emmett’s plot. I psyche myself for it —
I open the car door —
and whatever I was trying to psyche for myself evaporates immediately.
Wheeeeee wheeeeeee bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Buzz buzz buzzzzzz wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee
The annoying, ear-piercing sound of a weed whacker nearby.
I look towards at the van, and from around the back comes a man who has to be the groundskeeper.
Dust, dead grass, and small gravel bits fly around his feet as he weed whacks the dried brown turf next to the cemetery driveway. The lady must have gotten his attention, said something, because he suddenly glances up at me, smiles sheepishly in apology, and switches off the weed whacker.
He then walks toward the rear of his van and pulls out other quieter equipment, shears or something, and heads off in another part of the cemetery, to take care of something else.
As I walk along an access row, I scan the stones around me — I’m actually above row three — I turn right.
This is the old part of the cemetery. Most of the stones around me are worn down by acid rain, dates barely recognizable, especially so with the flat grave markers, the ones that are the length of a plot. Some stones have broken edges, likely from riding mowers, and many are stained or covered with lichens, although the grounds look well tended.
Perhaps the families are long gone, and there’s no one to consider these old stones, or to repair them anymore.
I see a faded plastic bouquet at the grave of a woman who died in the 1950s. And down further is a shrub someone decorated as a Christmas tree once upon a time. There’s a few ornaments still stuck to the branches, a silver glass ornament is on the ground underneath, still there even in May, I marvel….
I look at my map, and suddenly realize where I am.
And here he is, on my right.
I take the bouquet of supermarket roses out of my bag; remove the cellophane and lay them atop Emmett’s grave.
I take a white plastic rosary out of my pocket — I don’t know why I’m doing that, though, he wasn’t Catholic, but it feels right — and I place it on his stone.
“Hi, Emmett. I’m here,” I say.
I try to clear my mind, to think nothing, but just to feel, to sense — I don’t know — anything? Maybe Emmett trying to talk to me? To send me a sign? But I can’t quiet the thoughts for very long. Mostly I just stand there, looking at his plot, wondering about his funeral, who kept the plot up, if anyone else brought him flowers.
As I look about Emmett, I realize this was supposed to be Meade Wilson’s family plot, and they probably didn’t expect to have to inter Emmett here when they purchased it. Emmett’s brother, Meade, was buried here in 1914; he died also a young man, but of tuberculosis. Meade and Carrie are buried to the left of Emmett’s plot.
There is an empty space next to Emmett. Above Emmett is Meade and Carrie’s daughter, who died in 1900 of scarlet fever.
The ground is covered with sand and weeds; I scrape some of the sand away from Emmett’s grave to discover a concrete slab atop his plot. I’m intrigued by the sand and the slab — then I realize that the area floods during hurricane season.
Weeds. Sand. The finality of the slab atop his plot.
I realize no one has been here to see him in decades. He’s been forgotten.
Well, at least, not by me.
I sit down in front of his stone, and I start to talk to him.
I drink my coffee, I tell him a joke; I take a selfie with him.
It is the start of a beautiful friendship.