Essay: On a Cemetery Walk, Connecting With Ancestors | Essay | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Essay: On a Cemetery Walk, Connecting With Ancestors

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Johnson Plot Cemetary graves - MOLLY ZAPP
  • Molly Zapp
  • Johnson Plot Cemetary graves

I've abandoned my usual walking route — up a gravel road with a blueberry farm and expansive views of the peaks of Lamoille County — because the folks in that direction keep firing their semiautomatics. Now I steer right at the intersection and walk along the gushing brook. There I experience a different part of my environs the way I would if I were writing a travel piece about Elsewhere.

My friends cooped up in Brooklyn and Queens hear sirens and see refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals. I live in Brigadoon, gratefully, with easy access to open spaces and a freezer full of pork raised by a neighbor. Here, I look to the past, to the ancestors, to understand how to continue through great difficulty and suffering. I turn right onto Cemetery Road, pause to watch the elegant steeds at the horse farm and enter the neighborhood graveyard.

There is no marble here, hardly any granite. These are the thin, gray graves of the not-wealthy, their 19th-century losses and family struggles displayed for the present. Childbirth and death came young to them. One metal grave marker is for two: a sister who died in 1841 at the age of 9 and her 7-year-old brother who died eight months later. Beside their shared grave is that of another brother, who died 10 years later at age 12. How did their parents bear this series of deaths?

Nearby is the grave of a 4-year-old girl, Ella, who died in 1861. To lose and bury a child as a civil war rages is far, far beyond my experience of grief. Yemeni and Syrians, I think, know this traumatic loss right now. I press a sheet of waxed paper to a gravestone and rub a blue crayon across the dignified engraving.

I think of my Midwestern great-grandmother, Frances, holding my grandfather, George, as he screamed in fevered pain, wondering which of her children God might take away. George survived scarlet fever to come of age during the Great War, and then lived through the 1918 flu pandemic.

Around the time of his divorce, during the Great Depression — which I assume was also a time of personal depression — George was hit by a train and lost an arm and most of a leg. Incredibly, he continued to farm. A few years later, to his great joy and surprise, he fell in love with and married my grandmother, Kitty, a 33-year-old teacher and doctoral student. Their eldest child together, my Uncle John, got polio in the '50s.

How did my grandparents feel as they cared for their weakened son at home, wondering if he would lose the ability to walk or spread the disease to his sisters? Surely they were weighted with fear, but loss, pain and illness had come calling many times, and they knew how to withstand another visit.

I continue to Stargazer Field, where I lie on my back and surrender to the full sun. The 11-acre grassy clearing is like a slice of Montana, all big sky and no houses. Before the pandemic, the last time I played there was during the 2017 solar eclipse; it was the summer after my marriage dissolved. I shared wine and a pair of solar glasses with a sweet lover, the first in a series of younger problem drinkers who kissed me. Now I find the not-quite-secluded area where we entangled ourselves and basked in that day's particular alignment of celestial bodies.

Today, is that lover like me and millions of other Americans: unemployed, single, yearning to be useful and valued? I am grasping for authentic connection in past, present and future tenses.

MOLLY ZAPP
  • Molly Zapp

Perhaps we are united through our individual struggles. A Cigna study from January 2020 reported that 61 percent of adults consider themselves lonely. A couple of years ago, nearly one quarter of Americans reported chronic loneliness. Jill Lepore recently wrote in the New Yorker: "Loneliness is grief, distended." In his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, former U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy observes how loneliness often underlies anger, irritability, depression, violence and addiction.

Now I see the L-word everywhere. The angry, armed, unmasked protesters storming capitol doors: lonely. Kids watching someone else play a video game on Twitch: lonely. The guy with New Jersey plates who has thrice refused to return my waves during my walks: lonely.

Most other drivers wave back, though, perhaps with more eagerness to see another face than they would have felt before COVID-19.

As I walk down from Stargazer, the winding gravel road offers me views of snow still clinging to distant peaks. Greg, who lives by the swimming hole, is walking the same loop in the opposite direction, and we stop to chat. We met the week before, right after a fire had burnt down part of the field beside my house.

We talk about how death seems less visible in 21st-century Vermont than it must have in centuries past. About half of the people who have died from COVID-19 were living in facilities, their often-marginalized bodies largely out of public view before they even got sick. Perhaps this physical remove from the suffering of the dying makes it more abstract for the rest of us, or easier to push out of our minds.

It feels surreally natural to talk about death and politics with someone I barely know. I hope I can have Greg and his family over for barbecue come summer.

Murthy notes that self-knowledge, self-compassion and service to others are powerful antidotes to loneliness. My daily loving-kindness meditation practice includes reciting the phrase "May all beings know their lovable nature." When the doubt demons come knocking, the being hardest to direct that wish toward is myself. Still, years of practice have quieted the demons and grown my heart's ease.

As I turn toward home, I want to knock on my 90-year-old neighbor's door to chat. I want to see Alice's smile, to soak up any wisdom she's willing to share. Instead, I leave a card in her mailbox.

"You are not alone," proclaims a hand-painted sign down the hill. Thank you, neighbors. I feel that. I hope the ones with guns feel that, too.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Turn Right for Connection | Traveling through loneliness with neighbors and ancestors"