Tales from the grave…

“Each of us has a story to tell.  So do they.  Come hear them speak for themselves…”

And we did.

Loaded Mom, and my cousin, S, into the car and drove a few hundred miles to attend the “Voices of…” living history event, held in the old cemetery in Mom’s hometown.  My cousin, L, had told us about this during our “Cousins Weekend” last August.

A crew of volunteer researchers from the local historical society, some writers, and a cast of performers have pulled this together for the past four years.  The scripts had to be factual.  The individuals must ‘reside’ in the cemetery.  Ten new stories each year.

i’d had to keep this one to an overnight, due to other obligations.  This was a bit aggressive for Mom, not used to such whirlwind travel.  We’d settled into our hotel rooms by mid-afternoon, and managed to take a brief siesta before dinner.

For a woman who constantly complains about her failed vision, and difficulty walking, she can absolutely haul ass when you put her in the parking lot of her favorite barbecue restaurant on earth.  She didn’t have to ask for help reading the fine print on the menu, either…

From dinner, to the cemetery for the main event.

It was pretty brilliant.  We climbed onto the hay wagon that would take us on our tour just as the sun dropped behind the horizon.  Getting my 83-year old Momma on that wagon wasn’t easy, but she was game.

Stopping at the first location, the tractor was silenced.  Two men appeared from the dark, carrying lanterns.  Telling their tales from opposing sides of a skirmish fought during the Civil War.  It was brief, and compelling.

We continued on, hearing more tales.  Well scripted and well told.  Not sure what i’d expected from this small town troupe, but i was blown away.

As our tour came to an end, the narrator riding on our wagon said “None of us will live forever.  Only our stories will live on.  What will yours be?”

From the cemetery, we headed back to the hotel for the night. Lying in bed, i listened to Mom’s light snores underneath the blast of the television – she can only sleep with the television on for company.

She just turned 83.  She’s got a bad ticker, and the respiratory system of a woman who smoked like a fiend for 65 years.  She was diagnosed with lung cancer at the beginning of this year.

We’re at the “Two Minute Warning”.

The next morning, i woke up to the sounds of her snores.  Relieved to hear them, actually. She was getting up and dressed, as i prepared to do my push-ups.  Five sets.  i rest between sets.  Sometimes for many minutes.  She didn’t understand the process.

Mom:  Why are you getting dressed?  I only counted four sets!

daisyfae [tongue clenched between teeth]: i’m resting.  Figured i’d run down to the breakfast bar and get you a bagel before i do the final set…

We had a nice brunch with local family before heading out to drive the 300 miles home.  As my cousin and mother chatted about various bits of family history, i couldn’t help but wonder “How would Mom tell her story?”

to be continued….

The Living Dead

The elevator speech. It’s a classic business training tool:  “You’re in an elevator with a venture capitalist, and want to sell him on your whacked-out business idea.  Tell it.  No fluff, just get to the punch.”

We also see a version of this at awards banquets.  The “biography” – where the award recipient is recognized via slide show and narrative.  It’s a life story of sorts, with photos – where we are told more about how a colleague lives outside the workplace.  What are his hobbies?  What does he value?  What’s the wife look like?  Kids?

Last weekend, i had the opportunity to spend a few days with two cousins.  We’d made a pact at the last funeral to spend time together when we weren’t in the midst of planting a loved one.  And so we did!  The weekend was a delicious mixture of adventure and exploring a new town, catching up on current events, and sorting through our shared familial demons.

My cousin, L, is a free-spirited woman, leading an eclectic life.  She’s a columnist for her local newspaper, works as an administrative assistant at a school, has successfully raised four children, and finds time for some off-the-wall hobbies and interests.

As we wandered city streets, gabbing about odds and ends, i learned that one of L’s hobbies is to serve on a committee of volunteer historians in her hometown.  Specifically, they spend time documenting the lives of people buried in the town cemetery, with ‘residents’ dating back to the civil war.

Each year they research ten dead residents.  From these facts, they craft a five-minute script.  During the month of October, they host tours – local actors, wearing custom-made, historically accurate costumes, then tell the tales of the dead.

The script must be factually accurate, but at the same time, sufficiently engaging to hold the interest of those attending the tours. 

“We are giving a voice to the dead”.

She admits, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the quality of the scripts, and sometimes the performances are a little uneven.  Some writers focus on dates and events – “I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1867 and earned my commission on November 12th of that year” may be factually correct, but not exactly the stuff that keeps you riveted in your seat.

pic found here

Giving voices to the dead.  A different approach to living history. 

It certainly triggers another thought experiment…

How would you want your life story told a hundred years from now? 

What would your story be if it was solely based on research by an amateur historian?