Idlewild: Rain Cemetery, Witchistory

by Tim Gilmore, 2/10/2018

1. Witch Dislodged in Time

I saw, wandering Rain Cemetery, a witch, but I couldn’t find the cemetery. Where in Idlewild was Idlewild ever?

The fierce sun had bleached white her skin. Over all the years. The century and more. She smelled of rosemary and lavender. The salt in the wind had chiseled fine her nose, her cheekbones, her chin.

I found her walking, but not the place she walked. Only the witch. Dislodged in time. In the sand and the weeds, I saw the arms-up palms-up pine trees. But I couldn’t see 1903.

How might I lightly and gently touch her collarbone with my fingertips?

It occurred to me she could not be Jane Rain at all. She stood wrong side of the ground. She shivered lightly in the light rain. Spring’s coming.

Emma Jane, called Amy. Emma Jane Amy Wines Rain. How could anyone really bear a name like that? But this witch was no Rain after all.

For it wasn’t a year after Abner, Jane and Jacob’s only son, coughed up his life on 19th November, bled the tuberculosis through his skin, that Emma Jane Amy Wines Rain died too. She died of chronic nephritis, retaining her urine, the bloody stool, clotted up, kidneys gorged, September 18th, 1904.

Abner Rain, courtesy Jim Alderman

I watched the witch. Nowhere did the cemetery appear, though she walked it, and whom she could be I could not imagine. I saw visions of her mouth on mine, open, flooding my ribcage and belly with butterflies.

John Jacob Rain lies here too. 1907. Records don’t say what killed him. He was 72. Mary Ellen, Abner’s little sister, lived until 1960. She’s buried in Restlawn.

the Rains, 1890s, courtesy Jim Alderman

When was the last time anyone stood at the Rain graves? When was the last time anyone knew they were here? I can no more find Rain Cemetery than I can taste the fruit in the orange grove the Rains planted here, devastated in the Great Freeze of 1894 and ’95, no more than I can detect John Jacob’s German accent. Jim Alderman says efforts to find the graves have been “fruitless.” Like the frozen-dead grove, I guess.

But it’s there on old maps. It’s there in Lucy Ames Edwards’s old book Grave Markers of Duval County, 1808-1916.

Which of these suburban tract homes—on McCormick Road, McCormick Woods Drive, McCormick Woods Court—lies above the bodies? The wooden coffins fell apart in the earth. The flesh of the Rains nurtured the trees. The spines, the femurs, eye sockets in skulls—where here could they be?

I see visions of the witch’s mouth on mine, open, flooding my empty body with butterflies. I’d transmute them, for her, into something more lovely yet. If she’d let me. These suburban lawns are seeded with skulls and spines. These streets lay down over stories. I’ve only impractical magic to work.

2. GPS Coordinates, Rain Left Behind

Sometime in the 1970s, Jim Alderman drove his grandfather out to the Rain land, but Jim was a kid then and didn’t have a clear sense of what they were looking for. Instead of graves, they found rattlesnakes. Mount Pleasant Road at McCormick hadn’t yet been developed, suburbanized, tamed.

The wild had swallowed the settlement, Idlewild, wherever it stood. The grove reached down to present-day Girvin Road. Jacob Rain was appointed Idlewild postmaster, 1892.

On McCormick Woods Court, a burly man with a big beard tinkers with a tall pile of junk in his open garage. GPS coordinates place Rain Cemetery underneath his house.

A 2007 Jacksonville City Council study noted close to 100 lost or abandoned graveyards in Duval County, many of them old homestead burials. How many graves does it take to make a cemetery? Rain had three.

When Jim Alderman retired from the library at the University of North Florida, he moved in with his terminally ill mother, then in her 90s. He needed a connection he hadn’t when he’d looked for Rain Cemetery in his sullen adolescence. His mother couldn’t remember.

We need the past when the present slips faster. The further the past recedes, the more we wish we’d reached out when we could, touched it, ever so gently on the collarbone. Maybe she’d’ve lifted her eyes. Surely we would have seen. But we never do. And the past does not exist. The witch taught me that.

Before Emma Jane Amy Wines Rain, John Jacob had married a prior Jane Rain. He’d married First Jane in Illinois when he was 24, 12 years after coming, from Wurttemberg, to Wisconsin. Jim Alderman’s great-grandmother Caroline was born in 1859, her sister Julia in 1861.

First Jane, with Carrie and Julie, courtesy Jim Alderman

The girls moved with their father to Florida after First Jane’s tragic death. Local newspaper accounts lacking, stories persist in the family, the community, up in the Midwest, of First Jane’s time at certain Cleveland drinking establishments, an understanding she was other than “faithful,” and some suggestion of suicide or murder. She’s buried by herself in Cleveland, Wisconsin, the only Rain there, her headstone off to the side at an angle, ostracized in death.

3. Angel / Witch

Angelus Novus by Paul Klee

Fortunately, my place in place and time’s less tragic than Walter Benjamin’s. I can’t second his “Angel of History.” Certainly I’ll not commit suicide while fleeing Nazis across the French-Spanish border.

There’s no angel for me. There’s a witch, but the witch is not for me. That’s the formula.

Benjamin wrote of the angel with face “turned toward the past,” eyes “staring,” mouth “open,” wings “spread.” This “angel would like to stay, awake the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.” But the bomb of Paradise explodes and has always exploded, has always been, so the angel can’t close his wings. He’s blasted into the future, toward which his back is turned, and the growing debris of the bomb that blasts him forward from the ever-accumulating past, says Walter Benjamin, is what we consider “progress.”

4. Swedenborgian Detective: Witchistory

So I won’t call you my angel. I won’t call you mine. You’ve called yourself a witch, your own. Perhaps you’d let me walk with you a while.

Might I walk with you, witch? Might I be humble enough without melodramatically stumbling in abject servitude? I don’t suppose there’s any use or sense or purpose in being submissive, and I too somewhere have wings.

Witch of History, so soft-spoken, your herbalism needs few words.

Less dramatic than Walter Benjamin’s “Angel,” this Witchistory walks everywhere softly, always appearing before me. I find her on every street, seated outside every restaurant, inside every bar. I grow ashamed. I cannot look her in the face.

I’m willing, on such terms, to immolate myself on some lost altar of un-Google-able history. Willing? I’m dying. Willing to die unconsummated.

I watched the witch of history. Though Witchistory walked it, nowhere did history appear. I saw visions of her mouth on mine, open, flooding me with butterflies.

Swedenborgian detective. History will vanish into time. I’ll be yours, but you’ll never be mine. My loss, my failure, that’s the definition.

There’s no adieu. I wash out my mouth with soap.

5. Coda

In small towns, Jim Alderman says, a hint of scandal accumulates into tragedy as the decades go by. In First Jane’s mother’s letters to Jacob, she writes only that she did not expect her daughter’s death. Maybe it was cholera.

The girls moved with their father to the dunes and groves outside Jacksonville, but not until he’d married Emma Jane Amy Wines Rain.

Traditionally, churches refused sanction for suicides who’d thus to be buried outside the churchyard or cemetery. Occasionally the church permitted suicide burials, but placed them apart from other graves so as not to pollute sacred ground. Other denominations, and the Rains were Lutheran, treated suicides similarly, with residual doctrine.

Jane’s grave in Cleveland, Wisconsin

“I have no hard facts,” Jim says, “on Jane’s demise and don’t know if there’s any credence to be placed in town folklore.”

I wonder of how many Janes the witch could tell.

If the witch deigns me worth it, I’ll speak into her open mouth and ask her to flood me with butterflies.