by Tim Gilmore, 4/20/2018
“I looked up while he kissed my neck and saw the angel look sorrowfully over us. She wouldn’t look at us, but she knew we were there.”
Diana tells me not to use her last name. These are private revelations. For a long time, when she felt blue, she’d come to the Old City Cemetery and think about her hero, Mary Shelley, the 17 year old who wrote Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist who wrote Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, died in ’97 giving birth to the daughter who’d write the famous novel about giving birth to an unnatural creature.
Mary and the poet Percy Shelley, her future husband, used to picnic at her mother’s grave. Supposedly it’s where they first made love. “Poets,” he (in)famously wrote, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
My head swims with vertiginous ironies.
“I saw the angel looking down over us. It’s close to midnight. I took a long swig from the cheap bottle of plebe merlot. I saw the angel was kneeling, just slightly, and held a small harp.”
I walk beside Diana beneath these cedars, their foliage blue-green in the dark shade of an overcast afternoon, their bark reddish brown. A stone lamb, its head missing, tops a child’s grave. One tilted slab, no dates and no surnames, says simply, “JOSEPHINE and her LITTLE BROTHER.” The bent and rusted iron gates of the Livingstons’ family plot match their dark red to the cedars.
Here stand “tree stones,” funerary icons shaped like tree stumps, next to trees that rise from gravestones. A cedar grows from the grave of James A. O’Farrell (1860-1905), and his marker features the signature tree stone of the Woodmen of the World fraternal order.
Diana looks up, points into the tree. “Isn’t that the most beautiful thing?” Much of what’s left of O’Farrell disperses now, and has dispersed, into the growing wood of this cedar.
“It’s pagan,” I say. Diana agrees. I think of Walt Whitman calling his Leaves of Grass “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”
I quote him quietly. “All goes onward and outward…and nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.”
Diana recognizes Walt. I’m not surprised. I’m sure he knows her too.
Mourners have planted cypresses and cedars as funerary trees for thousands of years, but in the American South, the cedar deposes the cypress, whose Florida or Mississippi swamp-kneed giants prefer to grow in low wet land, while cedars take to the drainage of hills. Likewise, this densely grave-planted land stands high on a knoll historians in the late 1940s surmised was once Indian burial ground, though archaeologists have kept their shovels away.
“Here he is,” Diana says. Points to Finegan. The Confederate general. Led troops west of Jacksonville at Olustee, but also up at Yellow Bluff. The last remnants of neo-Confederate “Lost Cause” organizations, even today, tidy up his grave, plant tiny plastic Confederate flags.
“Finegan was the last thing we saw that night,” she says, then asks, a sudden light in her eyes, if I know about his abandoned plantation. “Poetic justice!” she says. “Poetic,” she says, pauses, then enunciates: “Juss. Tiss.”
Finegan’s plantation house, abandoned during his service to the Confederate Army, became, in 1863, an orphanage for black children. Chloe Merrick, an agent for the National Freedman’s Relief Association, had moved, the year before, from New York to Fernandina, just north of Jacksonville, to educate freed slaves. She bought General Finegan’s Fernandina plantation through a tax sale of abandoned Confederate properties. For two years, Merrick helped black children find families from the former center of Finegan’s slave plantation.
My head swims with exquisite ironies!
When the war was over, the Confederacy stillborn, Finegan sued to recover his abandoned slave plantation and won. Reconstruction would last for only 12 years. Then Federal forces retreated and the South began what it called Redemption. And the whole legislative code of Jim Crow. In June of 1865, a month since the end of the war, Merrick wrote in The National Freedman, “Slavery is not yet dead.”
“Chloe Merrick almost had the last laugh,” I say and Diana asks me what I mean. “1969,” I respond. “Duval County’s in the midst of its fight against desegregating public schools. They’re naming schools for Confederate generals and early Ku Klux Klan leaders—Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. (Jeb) Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest. There’s a need for a new elementary school at Atlantic Beach.”
Diana nods, leans into the angel, lights a cigarette downwind.
The new school’s in the northwest crook of the elbow of old Manhattan Beach, once the only Jacksonville beach black people could legally set foot on the sand. The center of Manhattan was Mack Wilson’s Pavilion, which offered dining, lodging, and music, until in 1938, as Marsha Phelts writes in her 1997 book, An American Beach for African Americans, “a mysterious fire” destroyed the pavilion, Manhattan Beach’s last commercial enterprise, upon which segregationist beach communities had encroached.
Diana nods, leans into the angel, smokes her Pall Mall downwind, says, “So they named the elementary school for Finegan, the bastards.”
I swallow my tongue, cough it back up, say, “Poetic,” then, “injustice.”
But it’s not over. Just as Whitman said that death leads forward life. Just as the iron burgeonings of corn top these rusted cemetery gates before obelisks. Just as corn, as funerary symbol, goes back at least to Ancient Egypt, from whence, in the British-translated Egyptian Coffin Texts, the god Osiris, whose dismembered body composts the fields, says, “I am Osiris. I live and grow as corn and grain, whom the gods bring forth, that I may cover the earth.”
Diana says she now feels better about how that particular night ended.
“It was a lovely night, really,” she says. “We were hot for each other, but then he held me. He was sweet to me. That was enough. And it was enough that it was enough.”
She smiles. “We finished the wine.” She closes her eyes. “And it was time to go.”
She smashed the bottle on Finegan’s epitaph, said, “Sorry, Finn.” She was not un-ironic: “Shouldn’t have fought for the wrong side.”
“That’s it?” I ask, picturing broken glass, imagining this fiery petite woman jabbing a broken bottle in a Confederate general’s face.
“That’s it,” she says.
“It’s a good story,” I say, “not that I condone trashing cemeteries.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “I don’t condone slavery.” A light shines far back in her eyes when she smiles bemusedly and says, “Such a beautiful night!”