Once upon a time, in a land rather different from Texas, an artist fond of chairs (particularly red chairs) and enamored of trees (especially whimsical trees able to use their branches to tickle cobalt suns or pistachio moons) whiled away his days stitching creaky little chairs and graceful trees into tapestries of hillocks and roads.
One day, the artist posed his favorite chair and a favorite tree against the sweet, subtle glow of a marmelade sky. He posted a photograph of the painting at his blog, then posed a question to his readers. Would they be willing to compete for the honor of providing a suitable title for the painting before he took it off to meet the public?
His readers were willing, and some of you surely remember the events that followed. Cobwebbed and empty beneath its tree, the Red Chair evoked for me other seasons, other times. I remembered an aging chair tucked beneath an ordinary tree in my town’s historic graveyard, dappled by afternoon sunlight and shadowed by a falling night. I recalled spending warm summer afternoons engrossed in that slatted chair, imagining the lives of early pioneers and the Civil War soldiers buried nearby. Above all, I invented stories about the chair itself – how it had come to be there, how it had come to lean so comfortably against its own strongly-rooted companion.
When first I saw the chair, I couldn’t help laughing. It looked like a down-home version of the concrete benches scattered around the cemetery. Had it been a favorite of someone buried nearby? Was it there to allow family members to take their ease while they chatted with the dearly-departed? Or was it simply meant as a reminder of simpler days, a time when the invitation to “C’mon over here and set a spell” rarely was refused?
Whatever the explanation, when I saw Gary Myers’ painting, a lifetime of chairs, trees, sweet memory and suddenly-stinging grief combined to evoke a title I thought perfect. I offered up Shedding Daylight as my suggestion, Gary chose it for his title and that, I assumed, was that. A painting had been created, a name had been accepted, a prize had been won. The lovely sequence of events would be remembered and cherished, everyone would live happily ever after and the story had come to its end.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Even as I wandered Fairview cemetery, admiring the tree and the chair that helped me win my prize, other events were unfolding as people responsible for maintaining the cemetery grappled with a problem. Many of the hundred-year-old sycamores and oaks seemed to be in decline. There were suggestions they would have to be removed.
Emotional attachment to the trees was strong. One shaded the resting place of Charlotte Natho, a nine-year-old girl who died from diphtheria following the Great Storm of 1900 and who was the first person buried in the cemetery. Others stood tall over the graves of Civil War veterans, half Union and half Confederate. Three of the Confederate veterans – John Henry Kipp, John William Derrick and John Daniel Owens – were members of the Magnolia Rangers, a Company formed on January 17, 1861 from men living in Galveston and Harris counties. It was feared even John Kipp’s sycamore would have to be removed.
As time passed, discussions with arborists reduced the scope of the problem. Of the fifteen or so trees in question, eight could be saved. Among those requiring removal, one murmured and sighed over the grave of Liz Fleming’s daughter.
I’ve never met Mrs. Fleming, and I knew nothing of her connection to Fairview Cemetery until I arrived home one February evening to find an email waiting. In it, Mrs. Fleming said,
“I recently saw in your blog an essay about my daughter’s chair in Fairview Cemetery. I wanted you to know she has a new chair there, next to a carving of an angel out of the tree the old chair sat under.
We had this carving done in remembrance of our family. Visit the cemetery and enjoy seeing the carving and chair, but don’t sit in the chair yet. It has been varnished only a few days ago, and I wouldn’t want you to get your clothes stained. Blessings…”
Suddenly, the mysterious slatted chair in the cemetery had an identity and a history. Ernest Randall, President of the Cemetery Board, had mentioned in an online article that “a regular visitor comes and sits by her family’s plot”. Now I was certain I knew who that visitor was.
I re-read Mrs. Fleming’s email, twice. Then, despite the rain and the late hour, I pulled out my camera and drove to Fairview Cemetery. Even from the street I could see that a good bit of trimming had been done since my last visit. As I turned into the main entrance, an unexpected openness left me just slightly disoriented as I sought the familiar chair.
Then, I saw her. The angel, a ruddy-winged bearer of ambiguous tidings, seemed to have landed among the tombstones on a whim.
Despite the gloom – perhaps even because of the gloom – she was astonishingly beautiful. The chair next to her was recognizable as a chain-saw carving, but a loving and far more skilled hand had contributed to the expressiveness of her face and the fluidity of her gown.
Still trying to get my bearings, I looked around and found the slatted chair, some distance now from the-tree-that-became-an-angel. Next to it I saw the Fleming family’s marker and, looking even more closely at the carving, I found one more surprise. The name of Earl Jones had been inscribed into the base.
A woodcarver from Galveston, Earl was one of the artists responsible for transforming so many of the Island’s live oaks into magnificent and whimsical sculptures after the wind and salt of Hurricane Ike destroyed the trees. His style is unmistakeable, whether he’s carving mermaids, dolphins or angels. Finding him at Fairview was both astonishing and appropriate. When I told Mrs. Fleming that I knew Earl’s work, she said,
I enjoyed meeting him and having him do this work for us. When he was finished, he came by my house, gave me a hug and told me we were now family. That was so touching to me. I have lived this life for 81 years and important events still keep happening to me.
Yes, Ma’am, I thought. They certainly do. In the midst of this world’s foolishness, important events pile up, overlap, come a-calling, run us down and knock our socks off without a single word of it showing up in the media, social or otherwise.
Now and then we’re granted a glimpse of this connectedness of life, allowed to see through layers of experience and circumstance to the heart of an amazing truth. Even when we think a chapter’s complete, even when we’ve closed the book, put it back on the shelf and gone on to other things, life itself has the power to write a sequel in our hearts.