The Long Goodbye
This particular memoir piece came about due to a photograph of an iron railing from a balcony. It generated a variety of different stories in the class. As for me, I was reminded of the cemetery gates at Wrenbury village in England where I grew up and a visit with my Nana.
The wrought-iron gate squeaked and groaned in the summer silence as I leaned my weight against it to push it open and enter the realm of the dead. It had been twenty-five years since I left England for Canada as a child. I’d never seen the place where my Nana Cooper was buried, never had the chance to say goodbye to the strong-willed woman who had died too soon.
I walked up the stone-encrusted path towards the ancient church, to a place where weddings and baptisms had been performed for two-hundred years in the sand-stone church. My purpose was outside the church, however, so I followed the path past long-forgotten graves where ghostly apparitions are rumoured to appear, to a place where I believed she rested.
Walking up and down the rows I read the names on the headstones of people who had lived and loved in another time, another place: Williams, Stephenson, Taylor, Carpenter, but still no Cooper. I went back over the rows. I knew she was around somewhere. I could feel it. But my search was in vain.
As I stood amongst the garden-of-the-dead I wanted to cry. I couldn’t leave her again without telling her how much I love her. It was then I felt a silken wisp swirl around my legs, my torso, and run its fingers through my hair like a gentle breeze, but not.
I sensed its good intent so I followed it to the front of the church where the Sunday congregation was departing through the massive oak doors. A man was standing to one side holding the door open so I approached his black-suited form.
“I ‘m trying to find Betsy Cooper’s grave, but it’s not where I thought it was. Can you help me?”
He must have seen my distress for he was very kind.
“Oh aye, that’s John Miller you’d be looking for. He’d have a record t’were your Nana would be laying. Foller me,” he said as he lead me into the church.
The stone floor echoed my footsteps as I walked down the centre isle where two sets of boxed pews faced the altar, each with its own little door. I remembered sitting in those pews as a child, my knees on the thick cushions as I prayed. The painted windows rested between uneven blocks of sandstone that had been hand-crafted out of the nearby hills of Bickerton and transported here so long ago. Their walls permeated with the spirit of past generations of church-goers and I felt connected to them somehow.
“This here’s John Miller,” said the man in black, interrupting my reverie.
I shook hands with the white-haired gentleman and followed him to the back of the church, through a door where I imagined the records were kept.
“So your Nana’s name was Cooper, Mr. Miller said as he pulled out a heavy volume and began turning the yellowed pages until he came to what he was looking for.
“Was your Nana a Young before she married by any chance?” he asked.
“Why yes she was.”
“Well, it says here that a Betsy Cooper is buried with James and Daisy Young.”
“That would be my Great Grandparents.”
“It seems strange she wasn’t buried with her husband.”
“He didn’t come back after the war,” was all I said. He didn’t need to know the whole story I decided.
Mr. Miller’s hand travelled across the page to the lot number of the grave, then closed the book and pulled out a map, quickly locating the site. “Right, follow me.”
Within minutes I was standing in front of a headstone that read: “Treasured memories of Daisy Young. Died 23rd February 1937. Aged 51.” Below that her, “Beloved Husband James. Died 9th January, 1949. Aged 82.” And finally, added at a much later date, “Also Only Daughter, Betsy Cooper. Died 5th February, 1966. Aged 53.” I had found her.
When I turned to thank Mr. Miller, he was gone.
Tears filled my eyes as I touched the memorial of a life once lived. I was flooded with memories. I recalled summers spent on the farm, the first time Nana took me to the hair dresser, sitting on the rocking chair by the fire while she worked at the table preparing a meal. She even bought me my first watch. It was a Timex. I carried it with me to Canada when I had to leave so many other treasures behind.
As a child I had been too young to understand what death was. Now I know that although she is gone, she’ll always be a part of me through the memories we shared, through the love we gave, and especially through our mutual love of the written word.
“I love you Nana,” I said at last – And she heard me.