Saturday, October 30, 2010

Día de los Muertos

At the edge of Strom Thurmond Lake on the border of South Carolina we pulled over for a picnic. Restless, I went walking on the verge of the access road, into nothingness, the sun shining. I found a cardboard box with the bottom rotted out—the spine and hipbone of an animal resting on lichen and dead leaves, discolored by the elements—a small dog, perhaps. Empty beer cans and a candle tipped in the underbrush, the tall glass cylinder filled with white wax. I used to see them on the low shelves of grocery stores in New Orleans, used for offerings. We tossed food into a stand of pine and drove on. In Edgefield the signs will tell you that a beautiful woman’s head was once split open at the foot of the courthouse steps.

Strom Thurmond and my grandfather were cousins, born in the same house. A wide white house, nothing special, save for the whispers of my grandmother and grandfather, newly wed, living on the second floor. She’d wanted to be a lingerie buyer for White’s department store in Augusta and fly down the road behind the wheel of Model T and drink beer across the river. She came here to teach school and lived in a boarding house. Her father-in-law asked her to drive him. She was beautiful behind the wheel. Strom Thurmond’s grave is marked by a giant slab of local granite, the carved words sonorous--survived by his black daughter, the child of a family servant he must have cornered in an upstairs bedroom when he was just a teenager.

Liberty Hill Road stretched past anonymous miles of pine. At a clearing in the woods my mother pulled the car over. Once she’d come out to her ancestors’ plantation and found a pile of chicken parts. The house was gone now, faded on back into loam. She walked over to a mound of broken granite. "They’ve plowed up the gravestones," she said. "They plowed the gravestones up." It must have been mere broken rock, not gravestones at all. For the coffins, those would have rotted, too--but what had happened to the bones?

No comments: