In a Country Churchyard

Don’t stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep

The car shot down the thin country lane at speeds that were unusual for a Morris Minor. Normally the vehicle of choice for old aged spinsters, it was today in the hands of my father, a veteran of Dublin's taxis, and he was taking no prisoners.

The three of us in the back were not clear on where we were going, but it was our summer holiday, which meant that a beach would be involved at some point in the day, so we were satisfied. I watched the fields pass by, wrapped in the dry stone walls that were a trademark of Mayo.

My father apparently grew up here, and was born nearby. We had visited his cousins, who ran a restaurant in a town called Louisburgh on the far west coast, and an intensive discussion with them had led to today's drive.

We eventually pulled up at a church, barely visible through the chest high grass that surrounded it and leaned out into the narrow lane. My father got out, and started looking around the churchyard. Hidden deep in the grass and weeds were headstones, and he examined a few. Moss, and decades of rain, had rendered most of the names illegible, and he was having a hard time recognising any of them. 

He eventually noticed two men working on the far side of the graveyard, and went over to talk to them. He told them he was looking for a grave of two young boys, named Keyes. One of the workmen started, and asked; "Are you James?" My father replied that he wasn't, but had a brother by that name, and the man then informed him; "I went to school with James!"

A wordless handshake was exchanged, and then my father explained his quest. Two of his brothers had died in infancy, and from his excited discussion with the cousins in Louisburgh, he had confirmed that they were most likely buried in this churchyard.

The two men put down the shovels they had been leaning on, and stared into the distance, then at each other. For the next forty minutes, they waded through the grass, changing direction when one of them remembered the latter half of a detail the other was trying to recall. Their combined minds pulled back memories of names, faces, dates, headstones, all clues to the puzzle that was the graveyard they were exploring. 

After about an hour, my father returned to the car, looking for a cloth. They had found his brothers, and their headstone needed cleaning. To us, this was an event on the scale of the discovery of the pyramids, and we all piled out of the car to help. Even wading through the weeds and rushes that swayed above my head was an adventure, and they blocked the unforgiving sun to make the graveyard a cool, serene place. 

In time I found myself face to face with a simple, small stone, with two names on it. The dates indicated that both boys had died in their first year. Having cleaned the stone, my father suddenly found himself with nothing to do, and spent a few minutes staring at it in silence before he lowered his head and said a prayer.

The drive back to our lodgings was quiet. None of us even noticed that due to the time it took to find and clean the grave, there had been no visit to the beach that day. This was rectified the next day, of course, and our holiday went on.

When I look back now, of the whole holiday I can only remember that day. It is as if I had unknowingly made a pilgrimage to my past, to a part of the history of my family which up to then I had never known. I was allowed to touch something that I now feel I should never allow to slip from my grasp again.


Someday, I would like to go back.



The story continues

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