One of the reasons Ace and I are lingering in this town – Winston-Salem, North Carolina – is so that I can reconnect with my roots here in my birthplace. An opportunity to do that arose last week.
I got a call from Aunt Edna Faye, who, though she’d visited from Raleigh just two days before, had forgotten to carry out one of the tasks she intended to: Placing flowers on the grave of Tan.
Tan, or Tan-NEE, as her nickname was pronounced in full, was Kathleen Hall, who, though not related by blood, grew up as a sister of my grandmother. As my mother’s aunt, she babysat me before I turned one – here in the very same house Ace and I recently moved into. Never married, she was a schoolteacher and administrator. She died in 1983, at the age of 92. An elementary school in town bears her name.
Putting flowers on her grave is a family tradition at Easter – one that, if I ever was aware of it, I had forgotten.
Aunt Edna Faye explained that Tan was buried in the Moravian Graveyard, in what’s known as “God’s Acre,” near the Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. She didn’t know exactly where the gravesite was: “It’s behind the church, on a hill sort of to the left, near the sidewalk. It’s on the side that’s towards Salem, not towards Krispy Kreme.”
She asked, when she called on Friday, that I get some flowers and place them at Tan’s headstone.
“There are no containers there, so it needs to be something in a pot, and not a very tall one because it would tip over. Just sort of press it in the ground and stabilize it as much as you can,” she said. Last year, Edna Faye got Tan a pink hydrangea.
When I told my mother – who is Edna Faye’s sister — of the mission, she said she had thought about asking me to do it, but didn’t want to bother me. When I finished reprimanding her for that – explaining that the main reason I’ve temporarily moved here is so she can bother me — she asked if she could come along and quietly watch from the car.
“Hell no,” I answered.
On our way to buy the flowers, she told me a little about Tan, most of which I’d forgotten. She considered Tan one of her four aunts, and perhaps the one to whom, as an adult, she was closest. When my father shipped out to Korea, Tan was there for her, and for long after that. She babysat my sister and me – I being born about nine months after my father returned. She was a much beloved teacher. Her nickname, Tan-NEE, apparently derived from a young nephew’s mispronunciation of Auntie. Her favorite color was purple.
Leaving Ace and my mother in the car, I surveyed the flowering plants outside a grocery store, opting for a delphinium because it was purple, with shades of blue. Ace approved. More important, so did my mother.
At God’s Acre (or Gottesacker, in the old German) members of the congregation were there in droves. The day before Easter is what’s known as decoration day – a time when relatives and church members tidy up the graves, and place out fresh flowers – partly because it’s tradition, partly because a huge sunrise Easter service takes place there the next morning.
People were hauling in plants, pouring bleach on gravestones to remove grey mold, and scrubbing off the grime, some using toothbrushes. All of the headstones at the Moravian Graveyard are exactly the same shape and size – Moravians being big on simplicity and uniformity. The departed are buried chronologically, in the order in which they are “called home to be with the Lord,” and there are no statues or monuments to distinguish the graves of the rich from those of the poor.
Normally, that would have made finding Tan’s grave difficult. But I’d gone on the graveyard’s website the day before, typed in her name and gotten the precise location: Section 1AA, Row 02, Grave 04. Between that and the map the website provided, finding her was easy.
She was buried alongside other women — that, too, being the Moravian way. Men, women and children are buried in separate sections, which stems from the church’s “choir system,” introduced in Saxony by Count Zinzendorf, the renewer of the Moravian Church.
The congregation was divided into groups according to age, sex, and marital status so that each individual might be cared for spiritually according to their differing needs. At worship the “choirs” also sat together – boys on one side, girls on the other.
When death comes, members are buried not with their families, but by the same choir system.
God’s Acre is still used by the Salem Congregation, comprised of twelve Moravian Churches within the city of Winston-Salem. Members of the church gather there the day before easter to ensure that all of the graves have flowers by Sunday.
Other than her grave location, there’s not a lot of information on Kathleen Hall on the Internet, her death having preceded its rise. Even with an elementary school named after her, there are few references to be found, other than a 1939 Winston-Salem high school year book for sale on eBay – one page of which is dedicated to her for her “friendly, untiring and unselfish services.”
My mother says that when my sister Kathryn was an infant, and wouldn’t stop crying, Tan would take her for car rides, and that made her finally shut up. (I’ll need to remember that next time I visit.)
When my mother moved back to Winston-Salem, in the late 1970s, I’d gone off to college, followed by my first job, far away in Arizona. My younger brother got to know Tan better than me, visiting her, after her retirement, at the Moravian home, where he remembers she liked watching professional wrestling on TV, and drinking banana milk shakes, which he’d always stop and pick up on the way.
I was hoping to introduce Ace to Tan, as I introduced him a few months ago to John Steinbeck, but I decided to obey the “no dogs allowed” signs. I didn’t want him squirting while everyone else was sprucing. He waited patiently in the car, watching from the window, as did my mother.
At Tan’s gravesite, someone had already left a lily, I set our contribution next to it, pushing it down into the moist earth as instructed. Contrary to Aunt Edna Faye’s advice, I picked a flower that grows tall. But I figured even if it toppled, it would keep growing, albeit sideways.
The hillside was filling up with people, armed with scrub brushes, bleach and Comet, and flowers in buckets and wagons and wheelbarrows, paying respect not just with their presence, but with their sweat.
Slowly, the cemetery took on more and more color, as if blooming — with lilies and azaleas and hydrangea and tulips and geraniums and daisies and daffodils.
And, amid the crowd, at least one purple delphinium.