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Mowing Maplewood

Diane O'brien - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Our family mowed the grass at Maplewood Cemetery for 25 seasons, give or take five years. Wally did it alone for a few years, then turned the job over to our son, Bill, and Ethan McKittrick when both boys were in college. They moved on, and Wally picked it up again. I joined him for the last three or four years until about 2010 or so when we both “retired”. In cleaning out some old papers recently, I came upon notes I’d made while mowing. Sweaty, grass-stained and stuffed in a pocket, I’d meant to use them for a piece I intended to call:

Mowing Maplewood

Every afternoon at 4 p.m. a fellow we knew slightly came to Maplewood to his family’s lot.  He stood quietly at his wife’s grave, head bowed, perhaps praying, or remembering, certainly missing her. When Wally spotted him, even if he was at the other end of the large cemetery, he’d stop the mower and take a break himself, so as not to disturb the man.  This apparently daily ritual went on for years, until finally he passed away and joined her.

         Cemeteries are, after all, the place where a life ends, often the only place for a mourning relative or friend to feel close to their loved one. I remember seeing a young woman I knew, sitting and weeping at the grave of her mother, gone way too soon, before the daughter could bring son-in-law or grandchildren into that mother’s life.

          A few graves, where someone’s child or too-young wife lie, are busy places; flower beds are planted and re-planted throughout the season, balloons may flutter, a bench, an untouched wine bottle, a stuffed animal, a favorite hat appear -- a sense of unfinished or unceasing mourning. A couple of gravestones have carefully-placed pebbles left on them, a sign of respect left by a visitor.

         Do you remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day? If you do, then you’re as old as I am. It was the day to decorate the graves, a ritual that’s become tied up with remembering our country’s war dead, and then more tied up still with honoring all military veterans with a flag on their grave. Sometimes even members of a fraternal order get a flag. The first day we mowed after the flags appeared was always a bit exciting, as the usually still atmosphere of gray stone and green grass came alive with movement. The fluttering of flags couldn’t be missed, red, white and blue cloth flapping and twisting out of the corner of the eye as we pushed our mowers up and down the rows of tombstones.

         There’s a lot of time to think while pushing a lawnmower. I found myself wondering about the mothers and their lost babies lying in old cemeteries. Then wondering if maybe those mothers, especially the ones who perished in childbirth ought to have a flag too, dying, in pain, while bringing forth the next generation for humankind.  Surely as worthy of a flag as dying to save the nation.

              Cemeteries are unique places, part lawn, part field, part heath. Because they’re kept mown on a regular basis, to thrive a plant must survive the resultant dwarfing of being constantly cut back. But this isn’t your lawn, where “weeds” are often ruthlessly rooted out with herbicides or crowded out with aggressive, well-fed grasses, then mown to resemble an even carpet. Here, when a plot or a whole row has been fortified with real topsoil and lawn fertilizer, the fast-growing, lush grass gives away its secret by its deep, emerald green color.  For the guy mowing the lawn, these aren’t the favorite plots. Mow it on Monday and by Friday it’s already looking over-grown again. People contract for this job, usually being paid for just so many mowings a  season, so the whole cemetery looks neat and trimmed for only a week at most, before the fertilized portions take off. The mowers won’t be back for several weeks.

         A good part of Maplewood consists of thin, sour soil where not much more than some rough lichens and plantains barely survive.  Many of the older graves are found in this harsh soil; they date to about 1850, when the cemetery, then known as Juniper Grove, was established. (Graves with earlier dates probably were moved from the Ulmer Cemetery out on the point at Ducktrap.) A newer section with a large bedrock outcropping has similar thin soil.

         One of the ways I passed the time while pushing my lawnmower along the rows, around the stones, and up and down the hollows of sunken graves was to take a plant inventory. In no particular order I found wild strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, partridge berries, yellow and orange cowslips (a kind of wild primrose), purple and white violets, hawkweed, stunted yarrow, dandelions, buttercups, Quaker blue bonnets (bluets), forget me nots, bedstraw, and clover. Oh, and daisies, rabbits foot clover, winterberry, cinquefoil, Indian paint brush, Johnny jump ups, maiden pinks, and day lilies.

         Under the maples on the upper, older sections, along Ducktrap Road, the mosses form a thick, cushy layer underfoot, damp and green. A couple of plots are covered with white reindeer moss – soft when it’s foggy, brittle the rest of the time – intertwined with the red berries and deep green leaves of some miniature, twining plant.

         Along the back road that divides woods from cemetery, lily of the valley grows, along with jack-in-the-pulpit, lady slippers, ferns of all kinds, raspberries, and where the ground turns boggy, enormous skunk cabbages. Mayflowers still grow in secret places, just as they did sixty years ago when children walked all the way from Youngtown Road to Maplewood to gather them for their mother.

          Half-wild roses grow on some of the oldest graves, lovely, little white blossoms with yellow centers; they only last a few days in June, then send up persistent shoots all through the surrounding grass. I imagine some 19 th Century gardener bringing them from home to plant on his loved one’s grave. And during a certain week or two in May huge pink and magenta patches of creeping phlox run over the grassy “roads” between the rows. The monument to “Willie L. Keene, son of Oliver and Waitie Keene, age 21 yrs. 8 mo. 21 days” stands amid such a patch, and on a sunny day when each individual floret is wide-open to the sky, his grave looks as if some painter spilled his colors on the ground. Both Wally and I so hated to mow the phlox that we went around it until the next time when the blooms were gone.

         Once I’d inventoried the plants I’d turn to the stones themselves. The tall, phallic monuments to the great men of our town’s day – the merchants, ship captains, or anyone with enough money to commemorate themselves and their families, dominate. Those aren’t generally the ones favored by the crows, though. On a foggy day you can almost always spot a crow sitting decoratively, if spookily, on a simple stone in the middle of Maplewood. Some family lots are set off from their neighbors (probably actual neighbors in life) with granite rails forming a fence. Today a simple small square at each corner, perhaps with the family’s initial, mark off the lot.

          One family chose a huge rose quartz boulder, planted on either side with rhododendrons that continually over grow it., while another erected an old millstone, complete with the iron hardware that enabled it to turn and grind the grain at one of our town’s gristmills. There’s a plain field boulder with a brass plaque inlaid, a small marble fleur de lys marked “Baby”, even a handmade concrete pallet with a name scrawled into the wet cement, probably with a finger or a stick.

         My children’s favorite was always the crypt-like tomb up by the road, in about the middle of Maplewood. The creepy thing, they thought, were the double stove pipes that jut out of the large mound behind the grave’s padlocked door. I used to think they put the bodies there in winter, waiting for the ground to thaw for burial, but once I started mowing I noticed the lintel stone. Hanson and Mary Mills lie at rest inside; he was a grain merchant and lived at the Beach. He died in 1915, she in 1910. Still not sure what the stove pipes were for.

         Why not take a stroll in your neighborhood cemetery this month? There are 25 listed on the Lincolnville Historical Society’s website, www.lincolnvillehistory.org. Several are on private property; ask landowners for permission to walk in them, but most are easily accessed by the public. The active ones – Center L’ville Burying Ground, French, Hillside, Hills, Maplewood, Union, and Youngtown – contain early graves all the way up to the present. Some of the others such as Cross, Fletcher, Norton, Pitcher, and Sylvester are accessible from the road. Each individual cemetery has its own webpage including names of burials, a google map, photos and a history. Corelyn Senn has been writing a monthly column in the Camden Herald for the past year or so. Most of these columns can be found on the LHS site.

         Be sure to come prepared with bug stuff, including tick repellant!


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