We danced . . . It was gloriously ridiculous – Sam told me before we came that at first it’s as embarrassing as karaoke, but then he forgets about himself: which would be my definition of heaven. — Anne Lamott
On Saturday, a group of men came to the farm to help restore the slave cemetery here. Their three and four times great-grandfather Ben and their three and four times great-grandfather Jesse are buried there, and they wanted to come make their resting place more distinguished. They worked all morning, placing giant pillars back in the earth and laying out the corner of a stone wall. They cut up a massive tree limb and cleaned up the fallen branches. I was so grateful to them. I felt like Ben, Jesse, and Primus now were finally getting the honor they deserved in this place.
But I will admit that I was so self-conscious all day. Every time I was asked a question I became nervous because I didn’t want to misspeak, misinform, or insult. I couldn’t forget about myself and just tell these men what I knew about their ancestors. So I found myself tripping over my tongue a lot.
Then, of course, it happened. As we all loaded up on a hay wagon to take a tour of the farms here, I looked at the three men sitting on the very back of the wagon and said, “You guys are used to riding in the back of the bus, right? So you know what happens there?” As soon as it was out of my mouth, I blanched.
“You were that cool, right?” I stammered. “On the school bus. The cool kids always wanted to sit in the back because you got bounced around more.” The more I talked the worse I made it.
I have the same trouble when I write. If I sit and think too hard about what to say or how to say it, I end up tripping over myself and saying things I never intended. But when I can put aside all the thinking that I do about words, when I can wrap myself up in the image of maple leaves outside my window and let the words pour from my fingers, then, suddenly, the halting stammer of control disappears, and I’m lifted up into the place where I no longer matter – there are only words and that maple branch.
In that place, I can really see what is before me. It feels like blessing.
Now, I have no idea if these men even heard my slip or took it to mean what I didn’t intend at all (if they did, they were too kind and gracious to point it out to me), but for the next half-hour, I rode that wagon thinking I had just insulted them by saying they knew what it meant to ride in the back of the bus. I imagined Rosa Parks fighting for their right to ride in the front of a hay wagon. . . I was mortified.
It took me a while to be where I was, where I could see the wonder and appreciate the way these men were absorbing this place. Eventually, I could hear them say, “I can’t believe this. Look at the chimneys. Those aren’t easy to build.” Or “I can’t wait to bring my sister here. She would love this,” as we stood by one of the standing slave quarters on the farm.
At moments, then, it felt like Ben and Jesse were walking these grounds with us, showing their grandsons their work: Jesse’s fine masonry in the barn columns, the carpentry of the horse stalls, the vast number of stone walls – “All these people did was build walls.”
Then, when we all leaned on the railings to look out at the river, as Ben and Jesse’s grandchildren reclined in adirondack chairs and looked out at the vista they would not have been allowed to see just 147 years ago, then, then I saw heaven. . . and it had nothing and everything to do with me.
If you’re interested in seeing images of these places and learning a bit more about the people who were enslaved here, please watch the video for my forthcoming book “You Will Not Be Forgotten.”