Clocks, stoves and life & death coincidences

As a child, I grew up singing a song about a clock that counted the seconds of a man’s life. “My Grandfather’s Clock” – Are you familiar with it? The refrain goes like this:

“Ninety years without slumbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
His life seconds numbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
It stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died”

I recall this song, which I’d always considered a made-up story, because I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. Her 100th birthday would have been this month. She lived a full, active life until she passed on nine years ago.

Mom's stove served her faithfully.

Mom’s stove served her faithfully.

On the weekend she died, my husband and I drove to Preston, the small eastern-Iowa town where she lived. We intended to spend the weekend, knock off the list of chores Mom invariably had for us, and return on Sunday afternoon. A typical weekend visit home.

When we walked into the kitchen on Friday afternoon, Mom (age 91) was standing at the stove canning tomatoes. That stove got a lot of use, every day for more than 30 years, since putting meals on the table three times a day was a task Mom thoroughly enjoyed. Because it was so well used, it’s no particular surprise that the stove was on its last legs. In fact, three of the four burners worked intermittently, if at all, and the fourth gave out that day.

Well, my mother couldn’t live without a stove, so we all trooped down to the local hardware store, which also sold major appliances, and picked out a new stove. They delivered it to her house on Saturday morning, in time for Mom to bake an apple crisp and cook lunch. Don’t you love small town Iowa?

That same morning, I convinced Mom to throw out the dish cloth she’d been using because it was worn to threads, held together mostly by the thread she used to sew each new hole closed. With a new stove and a new dish cloth, she was all set.

That afternoon, my husband I drove to a nearby town to finish off the list of chores. As we left, Mom lay down to listen to Rush Limbaugh and take a nap, as she did every afternoon.

When we returned, barely an hour and a half later, we learned from a neighbor that while we were gone, Mom got up to defrost the deep freeze. In the process, she had a stroke. Less than six hours later she was dead.

Past the shock of her sudden passing, I couldn’t help but think about Mom’s stove and her dishcloth. They gave out on the day she died. Just like the Grandfather Clock.

Cosmic coincidence? A mysterious link between animate and inanimate? The workings of my idle mind trying to make sense of life and death? I don’t know. But it was curious, and something I think about.

Have you ever experienced something like this?

A tale of two cemeteries

Wilmington National Cemetery

Wilmington National Cemetery

Every grave holds a story. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to cemeteries. So many lives. So many stories. Yet we know so little. Only tiny bits of information. Names that may suggest country of origin. Dates that attest to a life long-lived or to one cut short by a childhood disease or war. A line may suggest relationships: husband, father. We’re left to guess at all the rest.

In Wilmington, NC, we found two cemeteries that told larger stories of people as a whole. As we drove down Market Street, we spotted the pristine white stones and regimental layout of a national cemetery. Equally interesting was an historical marker pointing toward a Confederate cemetery.

At the Wilmington National Cemetery, we were fortunate to meet the cemetery superintendent, a former member of the marine corps. He shared that the cemetery was established to hold the remains of Union soldiers from the Civil War. Of the 2,039 Civil War soldiers interred, 698 are known and 1,341 are unknown.

The stones of black soldiers who fought in the war are marked “U.S.C.T” – United States Colored Troops. The officers who led these colored troops were white. Their stones also say U.S.T.C. You can tell they were white men because their stones also include an officer rank. Black men were never officers.

The cemetery also includes the remains of a group of Puerto Rican laborers who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Stones tell the stories of men and women who served in subsequent wars: Korea, Vietnam, World War I and World War II.

The cemetery is full or almost so. Family members may still be interred in the same graves as their service men and women.

Oakdale Cemetery

Oakdale Cemetery

We moved on to the Oakdale Cemetery, thinking it was a comparable space for those who fought on the side of the Confederacy. It was that and so much more.

When we drove through the cemetery gates, we realized we’d come upon a much different land – a cemetery unlike any either of us had ever seen before.

Driveways curved through trees hung with Spanish moss. Cement stair steps bearing family names led up to raised grave areas. Canopies over freshly dug graves told us this cemetery is still active.

Unlike the military-straight lines of the National Cemetery, Oakdale graves have been laid out following the curve of the land. The tropical climate of the area encourages lush vegetation to over-grow the stones and black moss to make even newer stones appear ancient. The apparent haphazard layout of the graves and stones makes mowing by machine impossible.

Oakdale is designed in a Victorian mode. Sections were planned as a maze of curved avenues winding through the hilly terrain. Native and landscape vegetation interspersed by iron fences and garden furniture contribute to a garden look. In the mid-nineteenth century, people used cemeteries as parks where people strolled, picnicked and socialized.

As we drove through the cemetery, we did not think about this garden aspect. The gray skies and rain contributed to an over-riding sense of foreboding. We agreed the site would be the perfect place for a very scary movie.

While Oakdale does contain the Confederate Memorial Monument (which I realize as I write we didn’t see), the 100+ acres include much more. Within the cemetery are the graves of 400 who died to a yellow fever epidemic, a Hebrew section, Masonic and Odd Fellows sections, and the graves of political, business and social leaders. Notable among those buried at Oakdale are: a female Confederate spy, North Carolina’s first governor, and broadcaster David Brinkley.

Every grave told a story. These cemeteries did, too.

Life & death in the Wild Kingdom – Robin Update

Robin Nest EmptyOne day, I looked past my computer screen, out the window to the front lawn, where a smallish bird pecked away at the wood chips under a Redbud tree. At that exact moment, a Red-tailed hawk swooped down out of the sky and captured the smaller bird in its talons. The hawk remained on the ground for the time it took to look around, then it flew off, the smaller bird firmly in its claws. If the smaller bird was not already dead, there’s no doubt it would be soon. The whole event took less than 10 seconds.

Wow! We had an episode of Wild Kingdom right in our yard. Excited by what I’d seen, I rushed to tell my husband.

We had another episode of Wild Kingdom in our yard yesterday.  Yesterday morning, I peeked at the robin nest on my bathroom windowsill, hoping as I did each day to see the eggs start to hatch. The eggs were still intact though the robin was away getting breakfast. That whole “early bird” thing. I went about my day.

That afternoon, I took another peek at the nest. Not only was the robin gone, but the nest was empty! All the eggs gone, no doubt to a predator bird. Possibly a Blue Jay. We have many of those in our yard and they’re known for robbing nests. 

As one reader pointed out, the window sill was a very exposed site. Perhaps the robin was a first-time mother, choosing the site for it’s warmth rather than safety. Since robins nest two or more times a year, perhaps she’ll come back to this nest or she may choose another site.  My husband agreed we’ll leave the nest where it is, just to see.

Nesting in a more protected site.

Nesting in a more protected site.

Looking for solace from our loss, I want to check on the nest on the downspout under the eaves. As I stood looking at that nest, which unfortunately I cannot see into, the mama robin arrived with a worm in her beak. The wide-open mouths of baby robins stretched above the edge of the nest and Mama shared the bounty. Having served lunch, Mama settled into the nest to keep the young warm while they napped.

I’m hopeful for this nest, protected as it is by the eave, downspout and corner of the house. But even that is no guarantee. My husband had a nest in just such a position on a downspout at his shop. The eggs hatched, the young were headed toward fledging. At that point, a hawk swooped in and robbed the nest. No robin has chosen that site since.

As another reader reminded me, reproduction is a numbers game. The more eggs, the more likely one is to survive. The very fact that robins lay clutches of multiple eggs and do it more than once a year speaks to the species knowledge that not all will make it. Maybe even that most will not.

What’s the message here? I guess one is that there are no assurances in life. We do the best we can, but we do live in a wild kingdom.

 Other Robin posts:
How to spend waiting time? A robin, writing update
And then there were four
A bird’s eye view