I have been to Newton Grove four times. This tiny town of only about 600 people is all of 3 square miles, and much of that is the cemetery at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.
The first time heard of the place I was almost fourteen. My grandmother had just passed away, and, though it was forty-five minutes from where we lived in Raleigh, Newton Grove had the only Catholic cemetery in Eastern North Carolina. My grandma’s family was all buried at Holy Cross in Brooklyn, but my mom was seven-months pregnant and had nursed her mother through the congestive heart failure that eventually took her life. Planning a funeral in a distant city was more than mom could handle. So there, under the trees adjacent to the old white clapboard church is where my mother’s mother’s ashes were buried and marked with a simple, flat stone.
Just over a year later, we were back at Newton Grove, burying my grandfather, who passed away while I was riding on a float in my High School Homecoming parade. It was a cloudy November day when Grandpa’s ashes were buried in the plot adjacent to Grandma. The matching stones marking their lives tell only their names and the dates of their coming and going.
The third time I found myself at Newton Grove was the beginning of December in 1999. I was thirty-three and had rushed home from California in mid-November with my baby daughter, uncertain if my cancer-stricken mother would be alive when I got there. But a few days later she was released from the hospital. The doctors thought she could possibly have another year. My mother’s faith in miracles was so strong, that in the extra chunk of time she’d been given, she was certain a cure would be found.
While sitting on her bed one afternoon shortly before Thanksgiving, the phone rang. It was someone from a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins. My mother instantly perked up. As the clinician asked her questions, her face became increasingly animated. “Yes.” “Yes!” Yes.” she answered hopefully. She offered up some blood count numbers. “Well, no, but…” she responded, still optimistic. “OK. Well thank you for calling,” and she slumped back on her pillow, breathing deeply. Her lips curled downward ever-so-slightly. That confident light of faith in her eyes flickered and dimmed a bit.
A couple days later, my mother decided she needed my help to plan her funeral. “Just in case,” she explained, though she assured me that the information I would acquire through this process would not be needed any time soon. Her miracle was still pending, but sometime in the distant future, she wanted to be buried on the “family plot” at Newton Grove. We packed up my daughter and the diaper bag and headed out to the countryside on that December day. It wasn’t until we arrived at the church that I discovered my mother hadn’t called ahead. It was lunchtime and the priest was offsite visiting with parishioners. He wasn’t returning for an hour, so we agreed to wait, and wandered among the tombstones. My daughter picked up rocks and toddled over what was left of the fall leaves, crunching under her feet, as a crisp breeze and rolling gray clouds threatened snow.
We came upon the “Tomb of the Unborn” where 157 aborted babies’ bodies were buried in 1988. The bumper sticker on my mom’s Honda parked on the gravel driveway stated, “Abortion Stops A Beating Heart.” To mom, this was another sign that she was in the right place. She intended to be laid to rest near the babies she had fought to save through her tireless work with the North Carolina Right to Life.
When the priest finally arrived, he was quick to share that the cemetery was full and there were no spots available for new “guests”. Indeed, the stone markers went to the edge of the property’s bordering creek, to the church parking lot and right up to Irwin Drive. My mother was crushed but determined. We walked to my grandparents’ tiny grave site and mom noted that there was room for another stone in between her mother and father. After all, they were cremated, just as she intended to be, and it wouldn’t be a significant inconvenience to add one more tiny stone atop one more container of ashes. I was grateful for the distraction of keeping my daughter off the granite markers. Listening to my fifty-five year-old-mother reducing herself to dust was wrenching.
After a good dose of my mother’s famous Catholic guilt, the priest agreed that he could make an exception and add another stone to the very small plot. The assistant from the Ladies Altar Society stood nearby jotting notes on her clipboard, as the clouds darkened and the crisp wind picked up and mom held her hand to her head to prevent her wig from blowing off. The woman glanced warmly at my mother and said, “Honey you look perfectly healthy. You’re not going anywhere soon.” Indeed, my mother did look good on that chilly Monday. Her rosy glow was back. She clearly adored the presence of her granddaughter. And she radiated pleasure at having accomplished her mission.
Mom’s glimmer remained for a couple more days. Her blood counts were solid that Tuesday afternoon, but she was weak on Wednesday evening. By Thursday, I’d called my siblings so they could spend some time with her. On Friday morning I called the hospice nurse. She thought we had another week, but that afternoon, mom was gone.
Two days later, I was back at Newton Grove, wearing black and numb with disbelief. In hindsight, I was grateful that my mother made these arrangements ahead of time. I don’t know that I’d have had the presence of mind to navigate the process through blurry eyes otherwise.
My father occasionally visits his wife of thirty-four years at Newton Grove. Three years after mom’s death, my dad drove out there to let her know that, unbeknownst to his children, he was planning to elope with a woman he’d met just seven weeks prior. He went to mom’s grave to ask for her blessing. Upon arrival, he found it covered with ants. He reached down to swat them off and he was stung on his left ring finger. As his hand promptly began to itch and swell, he realized they were fire ants. Coincidence? I think not. Perhaps he should have listened to the omen. After 13 years of a not-so-happy marriage, he is alone once again.
And mom’s mission to secure a space for herself did not go unpunished. Several years after her funeral, my mother’s estranged sister reached out to my brother, asking to know where my mother was buried. Our Aunt hadn’t attended the funeral, having broken off her relationship with my mom and their brother after a disagreement about my grandparent’s meager estate. My brother sent her a photograph of the grave markers. My Aunt, who has long been known for irrational responses, went crazy over the revelation that my mom was buried between her parents.
But this time it went beyond some of her past reactions: like when my Uncle had a heart attack while vacationing in London: “As far as I’m concerned, he’s been dead for years!” Upon news of my mother’s cancer: “Oh she’s just trying to get attention.” She severed her relationship with a cousin whom she thought stole her reading glasses, and disowned several friends for similar seemingly small, likely untrue infractions. This Aunt, who is also my godmother, wrote letters to the Bishop of the diocese of Raleigh claiming that she had purchased the plot and that my mother had no right to separate her parents for all perpetuity. A professed atheist who clearly didn’t actually believed in perpetuity, my Aunt threatened lawsuits against my father and against the church. She took it to the Archbishop of Atlanta who oversees the region. When that went nowhere, she threatened to take it to Cardinal Egan in New York.
Eventually my father tired of the vitriol, and had the markers moved. I’ve seen photographic proof, but I don’t know that I’ll ever go back to Newton Grove. My Southern Baptist father has already made arrangements to be laid to rest in a Veteran’s cemetery not far from the mountain town where he grew up. Besides my mother isn’t there. I see her in my children’s bright blue eyes, in their smiles, and in my own laugh lines and freckled hands. Newton Grove may be her chosen resting place, but I needn’t make a fifth trip there to feel close to her.