She Did What She Could, 2011
I have written before about my habit of reading the obituaries in the newspaper to see how different people describe the act of death and tidy up the loose ends of their loved ones’ lives. Ancient honors are dragged out. Dull careers become valiant quests. Strained relationships are brought to loving conclusions. Death triumphs eventually, taking the courageous, the long suffering, whose lives were not yet fully realized and those whose lives were lived fully and well.
A natural adjunct to reading the obituaries is hanging out at graveyards. I don’t make a habit of spending a lot of time at graveyards. But when I’m close enough to one that might hold interesting stories I do try to at least stop by and take a quick walk around.
This past Monday I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes at Richmond’s Shockhoe Cemetery. It's one of several in the Richmond area where Confederate soldiers, their wives, families and descendants were buried. A lot of people who were prominant in Nineteenth Century Richmond are buried here. Mayors. Business owners. Preachers. Slave owners and abolitionists, side-by-side in eternal rest.
Shockoe Cemetery is located on one of the most forgotten of Richmond's "seven hills." It’s across the street from what was during the Civil War a Confederate hospital, was later an alms house and is now a residence for low-income elderly persons. The sadness and isolation of its location is compounded by the fact that the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s neatly cut off the old alms house, the Confederate cemetery and an adjacent Hebrew cemetery from the rest of downtown. They’re all within view of the highway. But one has to be familiar with old back streets to actually get to them.
Cemetery headstones don't offer the kind of space that obituaries provide for telling life stories. The deceased are typically described on the basis of their relationships to the people who are buried around them. Faithful husbands and wives. Loving parents. Loyal children.
But what headstones lack in detail they make up for with endurance. Some of the headstones at Shockhoe Cemetery are worn smooth from a hundred and fifty years of sun, rain and air pollution. The engravings on others, though, are as deep and articulate as they were when the stones were delivered to the cemetery in the 1800s.
This brings us to the headstone of various members of the Winston family. I’m not sure whether Judith and Belle are wives of the same man, sisters in law or mother and daughter. What drew me to the headstone, though, wasn’t the Winstons, but rather the resigned lines at the bottom: "A servant of Christ. She did what she could."
What does a line like that say about someone? And to whom does it apply, Belle or Judith?
“She did what she could.” Did she help out in the hospitals of the Civil War? Did she just try to make the world of her family and her surroundings a little better? Did she see herself as a Christian missionary?
We'll never know the answers to these questions. My guess, though, is that she probably lived a difficult life in difficult times. Her youth and young adult years would have been experienced during the height of the Civil War, a dangerous and destructive time in Richmond. I can only imagine that she must have been a pretty dour person.
How else, then, could her survivors have felt that the most enduring message about her life would be the futile words, "She did what she could"? It's so sad.