We stopped in Defuniak Springs on Sunday morning, on our way back to NOLA. It's another small, pseudo-agrarian town nestled deep in the Florida Panhandle, the sort of place folks like us stop to use the restroom, grab a soda and hop back onto the highway without a passing thought of the local residents, their lives and livelihoods, their histories. We'd stopped in Defuniak a couple of years before, to find a geocache Cade had his eye on, but several miles down a pitted dirt road I got spooked and we turned around, defeated and cross. But my husband is a stubborn fellow (I mean, what else would you expect from a Taurus?) and on our way back last weekend we pulled off for the second time, one of us hopeful, GPS at the ready, the other slightly surly, tending to the squirming toddler in the backseat, longing for the Louisiana state line. Little did I know, steeped in doubt and impatience, that a real treasure awaited our discovery at the end of the winding dirt road.
It turned out to be a cemetery--a small one, no more than 10 or so tombstones, all members of the same family, some dating back to the early nineteenth century. As Cade hunted for the cache and Sydney romped joyfully among the dead, I took stock: one woman, the family matriarch, had lived to be nearly a hundred years old. An inscription on the tombstone of a 22-year-old man who'd likely died in WWI read What hopes have perished with you, my son. A woman named Julia and a man named Henry, born 1872 and 1865, respectively, lost 3 children in a breathtakingly brief period of time--an almost two-year-old boy in 1913, an infant (probably stillborn) in 1916, and an older son in 1918. Imagine losing three children in the span of five years! Cade talked about influenza, war casualties, all very reasonable explanations and undoubtedly true, but my thoughts were consumed by the enormity of this couple's loss. How did they survive it? I double-checked the couple's tombstones, searching for evidence of grief-induced early demise, but both lived decades past their children, well into their sixties and seventies. I pondered this newest discovery in silence, almost in reverance. How in the hell did they manage it?
Meanwhile, utterly oblivious to my reverie, Sydney had busied herself with climbing over the low wooden railing to snag flowers from the tombstones. It was time to refocus, to hug and kiss and just completely smother my precious, living, breathing child, to put her back in the car with an extra tug on the seatbelt, a longer-than-usual kiss on the forehead. We drove back along the dusty dirt road towards the highway, one of us pleased with his find, his success, the other lingering in a long-ago world, the history of a place she had never really noticed. Stunned by losses she hoped never to have to comprehend.