In 1770 Oliver Goldsmith published “The Deserted Village,” a lamentation over the loss of an agrarian ethos in England. In April, 2016, I found myself back in Birmingham, AL, my birthplace. I’d made the trip to help my college roommate mark her 80th birthday, a bittersweet occasion since she’d recently lost her beloved husband. As usual when I’m back South, I drove out to Elmwood Cemetery where my maternal grandparents, parents, sister, and brother-in-law are buried. This cemetery is the largest in Birmingham and was once the premier place to bury important white citizens. Until fairly recently the grounds were beautifully maintained by the corporation that owns the site. Its graves were also lovingly tended with live flowers and many family members visiting to pay respects or feel closer to loved ones interred there. But the demographics surrounding the cemetery have changed over the last 3 decades, as more and more whites have fled the city to live in established suburbs or to create new ones that never existed when I lived there. That means black Alabamians moved into the abandoned homes and streets, and racist panic began to eat away at people with dead family member inside Elmwood’s ornate fences. In the past 10 years, I’ve watched as fewer and fewer lots show any signs of visitors, thought for a time some upright monuments were topped by bouquets of artificial flowers, lending a little color to the surroundings. But the corporation leveled all the once-raised mounds to their big mowers could do their work more quickly and cheaply. Then they stopped watering the grass even as climate change brought even hotter summers than I’d experienced as a child/teenager.
My mother and father bought 8 lots (2 for them, 2 for my mother’s parents, 2 for my older sister and her husband, 2 for me and my husband). Six of those lots are in use, though on this visit I found the head-stone of my sister’s grave sinking into the earth. The remaining 2 places will never be used by me, the husband I never chose to acquire or any woman partner with whom I shared my life. Some of my fondest memories are of driving out to Elmwood with my mother on Sundays after church. We’d pack cold fried chicken, bread and mayonnaise sandwiches, and lots of iced tea. We’d also take along trowels, shovels, buckets, and clippers to let us dig up undesired weeds or plant desired flowers. Sometimes Mamie even took Dutch Cleanser and a Chore Girl or two so she could scour her mother’s and father’s grave stones. My memories are fond ones because these jaunts were a time I had my mother all to myself and we were outside in the sunshine (or rain, if that happened while we were garnishing those two lone graves). Once my sister died, I took up the mantle of hiring someone to provide special care to our lot. Now a very kind man plants pansies to last through the winter months and then a hardy annual that can survive in the hot summers. He also waters these, though I’m not sure how that occurs now that the cemetery has decided to save even more money by turning off all water spigots that used to be at the disposal of caring visitors who needed it.
How I felt as I stood in the eerie silence was how I suspect Oliver Goldsmith felt when he saws his beloved villages being left behind in the name of “progress” and economic profit for an 18th century version of agribusiness. If I lived in Birmingham, I’d take my lunch, my gardening tools, and containers of water so I could defy the forces of racism that had led to the destruction of a solace-giving space. But I do not live there and could not live in Alabama. I also wondered, looking down at my mother’s and father’s stones, how all the people who used to tend their dead relatives’ graves feel now when most of them never visit the signposts that stand in for those relatives. As I was walking back to my car, I spotted one lone monument with live flowers in a big vase in front of it. Someone refuses to let stereotypes of “those people” win out over their love for whomever is under the ground at that spot. My last thought as I drove out of Elmwood was this: Racism isn’t always about men in white robes burning crosses in front yards of black people or white sympathizers. Sometimes it is profoundly banal as it is all over the deserted graves at my old cemetery.