The old pine door’s rusty hinges announced our entrance to no one. How many, like us, had entered this haven to find solace over the many decades long past?
The dull thud of her walker against the scarred wood floor echoed through the country chapel. I followed as she made her way to the altar past the dozen handcrafted pews. Someone had recently placed a bouquet of pure white gardenias in a crystal vase next to the altar, filling the interior with a sweet floral fragrance. Her slender finger traced the deep etching of the crystal vase.
She smiled. “Someone brought their best.”
Sunlight filtered through the “Good Shepherd” stained-glass window casting jewels of garnet, amber, jade and sapphire across the white scarf covering her head. My mother-in-law’s once-thick chestnut hair was only a memory. The chemo had taken care of that.
Over the past several years, I heard her repeat these words often ...
“I would like to return to Canton for a visit. All my family and friends are gone, but there’s a very special place I want to see.”
I regretted delaying the trip.
Just three years after I married her son, Steven, his plane was shot down somewhere over Germany. He was listed as missing in action—never to return home. She was all I had left of him.
Not only was she my mother-in-law, we were also best friends. Although we shared many things, she told me very little of her life in Canton.
A few days after I purchased a new 1955 turquoise-and-cream Mercury, we began our journey. With the windows rolled down, her memories flowed like sand trickling through a child’s playful hands.
“I grew up on a cotton farm, one of nine children, and became a bride before my 17th birthday. Raymond was barely 18. We worked side by side from sunrise ‘til dark every day, ‘cept Sunday. When Steven was a babe, I took him to the fields strapped on my back in a flour sack.”
Her tears flowed. “One day, the stubborn old mule spooked, and kicked Raymond in the chest. When I found him in the barn, it was too late to send for the doctor. I was widowed at 21. I sold everything. Taking Steven, we left Canton.”
The memories she shared during the past several days filled my heart as we walked from the chapel down the red-clay path leading to the purpose of our trip.
Ancient, moss-draped oaks stretched massive branches above the mildew-stained granite stones like a school-crossing guard protecting young charges. From a distance came the sound of a train’s forlorn whistle, intruding into this world of silence.
It had been more than 60 years since she last walked the dusty path we followed. Head down, each shambled step deliberately taken behind the walker, she knew where the pathway would lead.
Turning from the footpath, she stepped onto a lesser used trail meandering past granite angels with outstretched wings, crosses of various sizes, and concrete slabs so stained from time, they held their secrets.
My eyes followed her gaze to a weathered headstone:
Raymond F. Barlow
1868 - 1890
Taking a blue, scalloped-edge handkerchief from her pocket, she brushed red dust from the stone’s surface. Satisfied, she moved a few feet beyond.
“Oh my!” I gasped.
Etched into a small, white stone were the words:
December 20, 1888 - December 20, 1888
So many questions flooded my thoughts.
Leaning against the walker, head bowed, her lips moved in silent prayer. In the steamy heat of a South Georgia summer, tiny drops of perspiration wandered down the deep furrows of her face, or perhaps, they were tears.
“I regret we didn’t name them.”
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