A week before Christmas this past year I tried my hardest to take a day off, to hunt for a few last-minute presents, and track down a country ham. I struck out on all accounts, and on the way home, trying to salvage the day’s goals, I stopped by a small church near my home with camera in hand.
I have passed this church a thousand times in the past 8 years, as I live nearby. This time I stopped, to walk the grounds with veneration, but also with curiosity. I found a simple brick Methodist church, surrounded on the west side by a plain, orderly cemetery. The headstones, with varying placement dates in the last 100 years, were dominated by a few local last names, farm families in the area. Under the row of cedar trees dividing the churchyard from the funerary grounds I found the above irregular shaped headstone with an arresting story.
The taller side marks the resting place of a father, Ben Rose Strowd. The shorter though symmetrical side notes the grave of that father’s son, Ben Hart Strowd. Many larger headstones commemorate the lives and deaths of two people, but these are usually husbands and wives, with differing birth and death dates. Though the birth dates differ here, this stone marks the same death date, April 5, 1942.
Since this day I have searched online for the first question that popped into my mind when I happened upon the headstone, “what happened?” I did not find much, as genealogy information and newspaper back issues are monetized parts of the internet. I did find a small clipping from a newspaper the next day, April 6, 1942. It mentioned the Strowd family members here, and another man, a car accident in Buckhorn township in Orange County NC. A car overturned in a pond which led to drowning. Reading this brought me to a new question, “was it sudden?, or was there a fleeting moment when a father had to assure his son with the same first name everything would be OK, when it wasn’t going to be?”
I sometimes feel bad that I am, well, fascinated by graves of children. Fascinated may be the wrong word. What I mean is as I walk through a cemetery I scan the beauty of the stones, read over the dates, names, and epitaphs, just as you may walk through a a park. But when I encounter the grave of a child, those small stones adorned with lambs or doves, their sight usually physically brings me to my knees. And I kneel and think in reverence.
I was frustrated in trying to understand what drew me to this subject matter, not being able to put what I felt in words. Six months ago I stumbled onto the answer when I was listening to the author Joan Didion being interviewed on National Public Radio. She was answering questions about a memoir she had written, on dealing with the losses of her husband, then her daughter, in a short time span. When confronted with a question about the loss of her daughter, Mrs. Didion said something to the effect of, “When we think of the word “mortality,” we think of our children.”
That was it! Exactly how I felt. Though scared of a few things in life, my death has never been one of them. When I was younger a foolish immortality pervaded my strength. Now an understanding of death as an everyday occurrence along with my faith in everlasting life frames my eventual death as a date not to fear. Just the day my body returns to dust.
But to think of my children and the idea of death in the same sentence turns my stomach, and every muscle in my body goes rigid. As much of life as I question, I know I couldn’t handle what Ms. Didion and countless others have gone through, the loss of a child. And those beautiful, pale grave markers topped by a lamb is a physical symbol of my greatest fear in life.
In the cemetery there were other Strowd family graves, but one stood out to me as I walked around the one above in the photograph. Behind it, a single headstone marked the passing of a female Strowd family member. I did not recognize her name, but a second line (“Wife of Ben R. Strowd”) helped me mark this stone as that of the wife of the father, and the mother of this little boy who was just five years old when he passed away. Amazingly, Mrs. Strowd had lived an extraordinarily long life, and died in 1997, fifty-five years after she lost her husband and little boy on Easter Sunday in 1942. This woman endured, enjoyed, and / or persevered (I am not sure) 55 years with that daily reality. Twenty thousand days to live without your spouse and your child.
The grave in the photograph contains an epitaph I have never seen before, “They never knew but to love.” A fitting note of the father and son’s love for one another in their short lives. Love is all I can think of when I think of my children too.