Stand Up, and Be Counted
by Alicia Beckwith
One late Friday afternoon in October I stopped at Mt. Hope Cemetery. I often went over after work, usually during the daylight. Thankfully, the gates were still open. I looked about to see if there were other cars, but saw none. A ripple of anxiety crept up my back. I began to wish someone were with me. There wasn’t even a jogger to be seen. Oh well. Nothing’s going to happen.
I drove the short distance, taking the right turn along the cracked pavement in front of the dark, foreboding office buildings, and then 2 left turns onto Greentree Road. I drove slowly crawling to a stop in front of the Vick tower monument, the family plot that held the graves of my parents, grand and great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.
At first, I just sat in the car feeling the autumn’s night chill. What was left of the setting sun reflected lovely orange and yellow shades over the roof tops of the University of Rochester. Soon there would be no light at all. I looked about, and made my decision to open the car door and get out.
Delicately making my path, I stepped in between the head stones. Keeping to the narrow bumpy path, I felt an odd sensation making its way up my spine. I stood still, looking about, feeling the air grow chillier. I pulled my sweater tightly around me, hugging my arms to my body, trying to add any warmth I could muster. The fresh fallen leaves swished about my feet as I continued to walk. Their smell reminded me of my dad raking leaves in the fall.
I came near the Vick tower with the large lily above the name, James Vick, 1882 at the top. There was no inscription on it other than the name and flower. Seedsman from Portsmouth, England should have been engraved on this marker.
Shadows continued to elongate. I could see gray images growing in number. I opened and shut my eyes as fast as I possibly could to be sure what I was seeing was real. I jerked my head back and forth. They aren’t headstones! What are they? They’re coming right at me!
Panic enveloped me and my heart drummed in my chest. I felt frozen to that cold spot. The images continued to materialize more and more taking on shapes of people. I quickly backed up.
“What the heck’s going on?”
“No! This just isn’t happening!” The forms kept coming closer.
My stomach flipped, and I felt my skin change as goose bumps crept up my arms.
“I’m getting out of here!”
I turned to run, but tripped over a headstone, falling to the ground. “Oh, damn!” I got up as fast as I could, hoping the creatures were gone. Nope, they were still there. I looked around them and the markers to make my way out, but before I could move, one of the forms right came up to me.
“It isn’t possible! Oh! Geez! Don’t come any closer. I just came here to see my parents. Please let me go!” I peered at the form of a lady in front of me. She seemed to be doing the same thing. She had on a black ruffled long dress and black bonnet that kept her hair tucked and under. The late sun bounced playfully off the mourning stone she had around her neck. I looked closely at her while rubbing my leg where I’d bounced off the headstone.
Her features were becoming sharper as she approached. The woman gestured toward me, motioning for me to come closer. As I took a couple steps, she began to smile. With her right hand, she pointed toward the headstone labeled Mary Elizabeth Vick, 1901. She seemed to float over the cold ground, and a twig snapped making me jump. She really is here! I stepped back feeling a coldness as she came closer.
“What do you want? Why can’t I just leave? ……………Wait! ….I know you! I’ve seen your pictures at my mom’s house. Y ou’re James Vick’s wife. My parents told me so much about you. But, how……..I still don’t understand. How did you come back? How can I see you? Wait! Has anybody else seen you?” My breath threw fog out ahead, punctuating my words and the wind picked up a little, swirling the leaves about my feet.
I don’t know how she did it, but she began to talk to me. Her mouth wasn’t moving, yet I was able to hear her words, or maybe they were her thoughts that came to me.
“No one will hurt you. I know who you are, too. Y ou’re our great-granddaughter. They waited a long time for a child before they chose you.”
“I don’t understand. What do you want?”
Mrs. Vick gently touched my arm. The coolness of her body made gooseflesh on my arm, but I stood my ground. Her voice was soft and gentle with a lilt as she continued. “Dear, we don’t have any intention of harming you. Your presence here is what we have needed to come forth.”
“I still don’t understand,” I said.
“For some time, James and I have known you have a heavy burden on your heart, and have unanswered questions about your life with your parents when they took you. Do you have questions you would like to ask me?”
“Well, you know I was adopted, and the story behind all that, right?”
Mrs. Vick smiled. “Yes, but you have been living a long time with great hurt and disappointment. Maybe we can clear some of that up.”
“Yes, but I never knew you’d know about that. I always felt dad wanted a boy, not a girl. I thought he wanted my brother, and not me, and that he didn’t want a child. Then when they sent my brother back to foster care, and could adopt me, I felt him distance even further from me. I never understood it, and to this day I wonder what I did or didn’t do.” I looked down the headstone as a tear coursed its way down my cheek.
Mrs. Vick tenderly put an arm around my shoulder.
“You know, I understand why you feel that way. However, there’s much more to this than what one sees from the outside. Your father did love you. He just never knew how to show that love. And, while there may be some truth to his wanting a boy, it goes back a long, long way. And, dear, it has nothing to do with you.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father nod.
“Can you help me understand this?” I asked.
Mrs. Vick turned her head ever so slightly and glanced at my father, then back at me.
I turned and followed her gaze. I jumped and a cry rushed forth as I saw my parents standing by their headstones. My mother was right next to him. No surprise. They were dressed in their burial clothing. I stepped toward them, but Mrs. Vick reached out to stop me.
Mrs. Vick continued. “Your father had agreed that you should know, and admits he should have explained it to you before he died.”
Mrs. Vick turned to face me as she continued.
“Your father was born and raised in New England. He’s always had difficulty showing emotion, and has kept something deeply buried all these years.”
“You see, when he was a boy in Providence, he and several other boys, along with his younger brother Danny, were riding bicycles, racing down one of the major roads. One of the boys suggested grabbing onto the back end of a horse drawn wagon. Well, your father dared Danny to be the first.
“So, Danny started up the road, found a wagon, bent over to catch part of the back board he could hold on to. The problem was that the wagon kept increasing its speed until Danny could no longer hang on. He let go of the back board, lost his balance and fell off the bike into the path of an oncoming wagon. He was run over and killed instantly.”
Mrs. Vick hesitated as she watched while I absorbed it all.
“Oh! No!” I cried. “Now I understand why dad always cried when he heard the song ‘Oh, Danny Boy!’ I just thought he liked it so much it made him cry. It must have been awful for him to watch it. I’m so sorry it happened.”
“I hope that you can forgive your father for his coldness and understand that many factors went into making his life before you entered it.”
I tilted my head toward my great grandmother. “I really thank you for sharing this with me. I really never understood. Now, I think I see things more clearly.”
“Dear, now that you have heard your father’s story, there are others here who would like to share their stories with you. Do you think that is something you can do? Can you come again to visit with us?”
I nodded emphatically and smiled. “I will come again, for sure. But, I just don’t know when.”
“That’s fine, child.” She winked, and continued. “We will surely be here!”
I turned reluctantly, looking back over my shoulder to be sure my family was really still there standing by their markers. I went to go back to the path and nearly bumped into a small girlish figure with marks on her face, arms, and legs. Her dress was torn in several places. The child held a hand out to me, her sad eyes imploring me to stay.
Alicia Beckwith has been writing since her early teens and has previously published poems and short stories. She is currently writing a biography about a small child surmounting many obstacles to survive and thrive.