Wednesday, March 9, 2016

...heading home to a forbidden graveyard...

They say, or rather Thomas Wolfe’s book title reads, You Can't Go Home Again. Greek philosopher Heraclitus writes, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Russell H. Conwell instructs, “Your diamonds are not in far distant mountains or in yonder seas; they are in your own backyard, if you but dig for them.”

I was the kid who was going to graduate from high school and move so far that I would never see home again. It didn’t happen quite that way. The further I moved, the most I longed for *home*. The absolute furthest that I lived from my parental home was outside of Boston, Massachusetts… Exactly 524 miles from one house to my parents’ driveway but who is counting, right? 

Driving North became grueling; driving home became a breeze. To be fair, I was pretty sure that I would loathe New England before I moved there but those were the days when friends helped influence decisions... or rather they begged. I certainly didn’t think I hated living far away from home and even tried to move to Phoenix twice. Each time something blocked my departure. Each time I was so close to moving that I lost deposits on apartments. I’ve been holding on to that third attempt until I’m in my retirement years; my heart couldn’t take a third letdown. Tempe seemed like paradise to this East Coast girl.

At some point I noticed that being far from home wasn’t for me. I wanted to be near my family for as long as I could; I also had a huge sense of place. Richmond, VA was home. I cherished various locations that I called and still call home, including Hollywood Cemetery.

Reworking a post for Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World for the Death’s Garden project has me reflecting more on home and the cemeteries that have touched my life. I’ve written about a few of my old stomping grounds and other cemeteries that I encountered in youth. 

Then, I started remembering a church with a graveyard that I visited weekly for at least a decade. At the time, I wasn’t allowed in the graveyard… this was most likely because we were only there at night and the church is in the country (read that as no street lights). Young girls playing in a graveyard was more liability than those adults wanted, especially on school nights.

Emmaus Baptist Church, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a historic Baptist church located near Providence Forge, New Kent County, Virginia. Dedicated in 1852, the structure is in the Greek Revival style which was built to replace a timber structure. The church actually goes back many years before they moved to New Kent County. Originally the congregation was formed in a neighboring county, Charles City County, in 1776 and later moved to New Kent in 1817. What I found fascinating about the history of the church is that enslaved Africans and whites worshiped in this church; and, even after the Civil War, some African-Americans continued to worship there. 

During the war, the church continued business as usual except for one day, September 14, 1862, when combat occurred a bit too close for comfort (“National Register of Historic Places Registration Form”). I remember this place being back in the woods away from civilization but so much of the county was touched by the Civil War.
Confederate markers are pointed while the Union markers are rounded. The Confederate markers also include the Southern Cross of Honor at the top.
Little Me as a Brownie!
This church, Emmaus Baptist Church, in my yesteryears, is where my Girl Scout troop held our weekly meetings. I was in Brownies, Juniors, and then Cadettes with the same troop of girls. Basically, a good 80% of my high school graduating class had attended preschool together. Unlike many of the gothy readers of this blog, I did not experience bullying from my classmates, especially since they had known me since I was in elementary school. The only bullying I experienced was from adults; and, when you’re young who really cares what adults think of you.

These grounds are haunted. No, they’re probably not haunted in the traditional way we speak of haunted churchyards; here is where I played with my friends… two of whom have passed on. One of my friends in buried in the same cemetery as my grandmother. I’ve written about her briefly here. When looking at that post I realized that I wrote about the flowers I was leaving her but hardly even show her marker. My other good friend is buried in Olivet Presbyterian Church; again, I featured the graveyard but remained pretty quiet about my friend.  When I go to those locations, I do not share any memories of them there or at least not in connection to their burial plots. 

But here, in Emmaus Baptist Church I think I can hear them; I remember where we walked; I remember the games such as Red Rover that we played on these grounds in front of the recreational hall. I remember walking up the steps. I remember the very bricks of the building. I remember where we stood when we were hanging out and talking. In this sense, the grounds are haunted... but really only the front lawn. This visit was the very first time that I have ever set foot in the forbidden land behind the church... the graveyard. The churchyard contains 195 tombstones with dates ranging from 1855 to 1989. 

I go home physically to my childhood home somewhat often but never enough. As complicated as family can be, they do not stick around forever. Last weekend, I symbolically went home. Sure, I walked the grounds of the graveyard but really it was that front lawn between the buildings and the sidewalks where I stood to remember. I touched the old tree who had been base for so many childhood games of tag. I remembered my two close friends who aren't alive but who are without a doubt present here. They're both young as I count my own wrinkles, for which I'm thankful because the alternative is not having the years behind me. Neither of them lived long enough... one not quite 18 and one 29. Has it really been that long since I've seen them? 

While there are always negatives growing up in a small rural town, there are also many benefits. I think I loved harder and deeper than some of my peers in other counties who hadn't experienced such loss. Those of us from New Kent, after burying one too many friends (but isn't one considered too many?), always told one another that we loved them. We suffered great loss and we weren't going to let another moment pass without appreciating what we had. We had diamonds in that small town... diamonds in our backyard. But while I stand in the churchyard, I know that this place is not the same. It's not the same churchyard and I'm not the same woman... but it still feels like home.


  1. Wow, what a wonderful post. I am sorry about your loss but am envious of your fond childhood memories. This was a good read, thanks for posting :)

  2. It seems like it hasn't changed that much, which is nice! Everything always seems to change so fast, it's nearly impossible to recreate childhood memories. Ah well.