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12 August 1827
Jarmany Hill Cemetery, Sharon, New Hampshire
Reuben Law’s hike up the steep rise had tired his aged body, but he had a purpose. He rested beneath overhanging birch limbs, enjoying the shade, while surveying the ill-maintained cemetery. His coarsely woven wool suit and vest clung to his body, and the blue cravat wrapped around a dampened, extended white collar was knotted askew. Unsuitable clothing for August, but worn every Sunday morning, regardless.
He sighed and moved from the shadows through the stone wall’s opening. He stepped carefully among the gravestones to avoid the ground where his friends had been laid to rest. Sunshine cooked his suit, and he removed a handkerchief to wipe his brow. A stone at the cemetery’s far western edge occupied his attention. He dawdled, still unready to move toward it. He refolded his handkerchief and tried several times to slide it into his vest pocket before crumpling it and cramming it in.
Ahead, a lichen sprinkled stone intrigued Reuben. He thought as he gimped toward it. How long has it been? He scratched the moss to reveal two sevens and stepped back to read the inscription:
“SPAFFORD Mary, wife of Abijah d. Sep. 9, 1802, in her 67 yr. Abijah d. Oct. 19, 1811 in his 77 yr.”
“Goodness, ole Abijah has been dead sixteen years.” He shook his head. “And he was my age when he died.” His eyes darted between the two death dates. Nine years without his Mary. He snorted and thought, Abijah was dead, too, but didn’t know it.
He shuffled west and paused at the thick stone with spiked florets and wheat heads carved into the upper portion. “Billings Carter” in raised letters laid below on a smooth arch, and farther down was etched “DIED Dec. 5 1825 E. 34 yrs”. Logs had broken free at a saw mill where Billings worked, rolled over him, and pinned him in icy water. He was rescued, but died soon thereafter leaving Reuben’s daughter Elizabeth a widow and six children fatherless. Their ages ranged from ten to a newborn. Naamah, a middle child, was halfway through her fifth year on earth when her young father was abruptly snatched from her. Devastated at first, the accident turned her precocious about the promise of life eternal as proclaimed by preachers of Peterborough. “Father’s in heaven now, saving a special place for us,” she often observed.
Reuben smiled now recalling Naamah’s oft-spoken words. Whenever she said them, he would kiss the top of her head and say, “Just like Jesus tells us.” He didn’t believe those words at the time since he was as dead as Abijah had been after his wife’s passing. To him, Heaven was a crutch for the living, and when you’re dead, a crutch is worthless.
He glanced west, shook his head, and wandered east, trying to ignore six small stones he knew too well. But he couldn’t, and soon was standing with arms hanging, gazing at markers for the children of his son James.
The first stone, aligned next to the others and barely above ground, was inscribed “J. L. 1811-1812” and marked where James Law, the firstborn and first child to die, was buried. “J. L. 1815-1817” was inscribed on the next stone. “James, too,” said Reuben. “I remember the night you died – on my birthday. You and young Reuben were so sick.”
He stepped to a third stone with “R. L. 1817-1818” on it. “My namesake, and I was so proud. But you never had a chance.” He thought of his firstborn son, also named Reuben, and their estrangement over the years. I was too hard on the lad, he thought. One’s always hard on his eldest, his namesake.
He recalled his mistakes in rearing his son, regretting each, until his eyes welled. With blurry eyes, he glanced at the stones for Lyman, age two, Betsy, age one and a half, and Alice, age eight. He brushed his tears and looked skyward. Lord, why do you bless us with them only to snatch them away?
He had asked that question often and never received an answer. He used to wonder if the sulphur smell from his son’s well was the cause. But the stench occurred only in summer, and the children had not died in summer. Yet doubts persisted. He sighed. “Ah Reuben, get away from this misery.”
He moved west while thinking of James’s wife, now eight months pregnant for the ninth time. An impending grandchild should bring joy, but he feared this unborn child would meet an early death, too. James and his wife seemed optimistic, which Reuben sensed was contrived to conceal the dread in their souls. He slowed to a shuffle as he reached his purpose for coming.
He sat on the stone wall and leaned against the birch tree. He fidgeted for comfort, which came quickly as muscles never forget the familiar. The rectangular slate stone for his wife, Allis, lay in front of him. His eyes drifted to “died 5 Feb. 1821.”
“Been a while,” he said as he massaged his arthritic hand. “But you’re always in my thoughts.” He inhaled, and twittering birds broke an unnerving silence. His eyelids grew heavy as he listened, and when the chirping ceased, he refocused on the stone.
“Did you know ole Abijah was my age when he died? You’d say how sad and lonely he became after Mary died. Remember?” He glanced at the ground. “Our children said the same about me.” He chuckled as he scanned the cemetery. “Susanna would say, ‘You be as grouchy as ole Abijah.’ ”
He eased from the tree to arch his back. “You know I’m friendly with your cousin’s widow, Ruth. Wasn’t much at first, just pleasantries after church, but then, well . . .” He rubbed his hand while pondering what to say. “The children say Ruth is good for me. I reckon they’re right.” He raised his head and saw “Allis, wife of Reuben” on the stone. He grimaced and said, “I’m thinking of asking Ruthy to marry me.”
“Ruthy? You’ve become quite familiar, Reuben.”
That thought came in Allis’s voice. He closed his eyes to block “Allis, wife of Reuben” from them and tugged his lapel. “We’re just friends. We need each other. Help each other.” He eased off the stone wall and gimped to Allis’s gravestone. He placed his hand on it to steady himself. “Allis, I never wanted another wife. When we said ‘til death do us part years ago, I didn’t know what it meant. You left, but I wasn’t ready. I died with you.” He lowered his head. “I was Abijah, alone, miserable, and dead.”
He stepped back and stared. “You’re my first wife, my only wife. Not ‘til death do us part, but forever. You understand, don’t you?”
“For eternity, Reuben. I do understand.” Reuben smiled as Allis’s response remained in his thoughts. “I’ve been saving a seat for you next to me in heaven,” came to mind in a voice similar to young Naamah’s.
He cherished his inner peace until rustling leaves disturbed him. He looked east to the stone wall’s opening and waited. His daughter Elizabeth marched out of the shadows with Naamah close behind and holding a flower bouquet.
They continued until Elizabeth spotted Reuben. “So this is where you wandered to. I asked Ruthy, and she said you left abruptly. ” Elizabeth glanced at Allis’s stone. “Talking with Mother?”
Reuben shook his head. “Needed a spot of air, and I thought of this peaceful place.”
“Jarmany Hill, peaceful? I thought you hated this damn place.”
Naamah broke from her mother’s side and rushed to Reuben. She clung to his leg and placed her head on his hip. By habit, she would cling until he patted her head, just as her father used to do. She cherished the protective strength an older man gave. Reuben’s woolen jacket was coarse and lacked the smell of sawdust that had marked her father’s clothing. His leg, while sturdy, wasn’t as strong as her father’s had been. When Reuben stroked her head, she looked up, smiled, and dashed to her father’s grave.
Reuben and Elizabeth ambled toward Naamah. “Yesterday, Billings would have been thirty-six,” said Elizabeth. She pointed to Naamah. “After services, she asked the preacher for the church flowers for his birthday. He’s been gone less than two years. Seems like an eternity.”
Naamah knelt, facing the ornate gravestone, and folded her hands. Her lips moved, but what she said was unheard. Naamah Kendall Jenkins Carter was born six and half years earlier and three weeks after an aunt, Naamah Kendall Jenkins, had died. Once she realized the legacy she carried, she had a unique bond with a person now in heaven. Her younger sister, Betsey, couldn’t pronounce the three syllables, and ‘Nay-a-mah’ elided to ‘A-amah’, creating Amy as her nickname.
She brushed her knees as she arose. “Father thanked me for the flowers.” She grinned and turned to Reuben. “Said he’s saving a special spot for us. Just like Jesus says, huh Grandpa?” She beamed as Reuben smiled and patted her head.
Elizabeth smiled, too, barely masking her sadness.
“The widow Piper was wondering where you went,” said Naamah. “I like her. Do you?”
Reuben didn’t answer, content to enjoy the often smiling and at times, chattering Naamah. Her cheery disposition and smooth round face were similar to her father’s, and unlike her mother’s dour, long face with an immediately noticed hooked nose.
“Grandpa, are you going to marry the widow Piper?”
“Gracious Amy,” said Elizabeth. “You shouldn’t ask such questions.”
“Perhaps someday, I reckon I might.”
“You should marry her real soon.”
“Amy enough,” said her mother.
“It’s all right Elizabeth,” said Reuben as he slouched to be eye level with Naamah. “And why should I marry her real soon?”
“Cuz Mother says she makes you happy. I like it when you’re happy.”
Reuben straightened up and chuckled. “Then I better marry her real quick-like.”
“Come along. You’ve pestered your grandfather long enough.” Elizabeth turned to Reuben and said, “We’ll leave you to your peaceful spot.”
Naamah held her mother’s hand as they headed away. When she looked over her shoulder at Reuben, his smile broadened. She paused and said, “When we’re in heaven, will you sit next to Grandma Allis or the widow Piper?”
Elizabeth tugged on her daughter’s hand, “These questions about heaven — will you ever stop?”
“But Aunt Susan said that in heaven . . .”
Reuben turned to Allis’s stone. He thought he had answers for whatever Allis would ask. But he couldn’t answer Naamah’s innocent question. He stared, hoping to hear Allis’s voice. He mumbled, “Grandma Allis.” He heard nothing and inferred the silence meant Allis’s disapproval.
He turned and responded to Naamah. “I will sit next to Grandma Allis.” But Naamah had vanished, and he doubted she heard him. When he heard the rustling leaves from Naamah and her mother moving down the hill, he considered shouting to her but didn’t. His answer was lost forever – or was it?
He pushed his palm across his balding pate. It’s not ‘til death do us part, it’s for eternity. He glanced at Billings’s gravestone and the flower bouquet. Images of his broken body pinned in frigid water returned, more horrific than when it had occurred. His eyes shifted and couldn’t avoid the six barely visible gravestones that lay farther away.
As he trudged to the path, thoughts of his impending grandchild returned. He glanced skyward and scowled. How soon before we’ll need a seventh stone, Lord? He reached the opening and turned back. The trees on the perimeter diffused the glare to a mellow glow while birds twittered — serenity if Reuben cared to see or hear it.
Reuben turned from the brilliant hilltop and moved to the shadowy darkness, leading to the depths below. “God, I hate this damn place.”
About the Author
Alfred Woollacott, III retired from KPMG after a career spanning 34 years, choosing to reside full time at his summer residence on Martha’s Vineyard. Being “45 minutes from America” and with a 50 – 60 hour per week void to fill, he began dabbling into his family history. His dabbling grew into an obsession, and he published several genealogical summaries of his ancestors. But certain ones absorbed him such that he could not leave them. So he researched their lives and times further while evolving his writing skills from “just the facts ma’am” to a fascinating narrative style. Thus with imagination, anchored in fact and tempered with plausibility, a remote ancestor can achieve a robust life as envisioned by a writer with a few drops of his ancestor’s blood in his veins.
When not writing, Al serves on several Boards, and keeps physically active with golf, tennis, and hockey. He and his wife of 44 years, Jill, have four children and ten grandchildren.
Layered Pages Interview with Alfred Woollacott HERE
About the Book:
From the author of The Immigrant, another stimulating novel that will linger with you regardless of your faith or beliefs.
After enduring early parental deaths, Naamah Carter discovers renewed meaning to her strong Christian beliefs through Joseph Smith’s testaments. His following in Peterborough, New Hampshire flourishes, yet Naamah, her beloved Aunt Susan, and other believers suffer family strife and growing community resentment. She leaves her unfriendly situation and journeys to Nauvoo to be among thousands building their Prophet‘s revelation of an earthly Zion on a Mississippi River promontory. There, her faith is tested, enduring loss of loved ones and violence from those longing to destroy Nauvoo. With the western exodus imminent, she faces a decision that runs counter to her soul and all she holds sacred – whether to become Brigham Young’s plural wife.
This meticulously researched novel weaves the momentous events of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and Brigham Young’s succession with Naamah’s story and offers differing perspectives to create a mosaic of Nauvoo, the crucible out of which arose today’s Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.
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