August 31, 2011
Things without all remedy
Should be without regard: what’s done is done.
— William Shakespeare
Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1
This post, with its epigraph, has been in the unpublished draft folder of Markings since August 15. It was originally titled “Half a Loaf,” and I intended it to be an update from the midpoint in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Charles Baxter lectured that day on “Undoings: Dramatic Actions That Can’t Be Undone,” and he used the lines from Macbeth in the handout he gave.
I started writing about 11:00 that night. I never got past the initial formatting and the placement of the epigraph. I went to bed instead, and got up the next day, and the three days after that, and just kept going to readings and lectures and craft classes and panel discussions and workshop sessions. It was the most absorbing and intellectually stimulating Bread Loaf I have ever attended, and by the time I said goodbye to my friends at the last breakfast, I had filled more than 40 pages in my notebook, not one line of it anything personal. Just conference notes.
That last breakfast was Saturday, August 20. I stayed in my off-campus rental until the morning of August 23, when I came down off the mountain and headed home. Before I left, I performed an August ritual that I began back in 2000, when a set of writing prompts I used suggested inventing an August holiday.
I call it One Kind Favor Day, in honor of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s request: “There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.” As I wrote then, “I think in late August, as colors fade and the first hints of autumn bring thoughts of our own mortality, we should each visit a neglected or forgotten gravesite. Trim back the weeds, place a fresh pot of mums still in tight bud, and speak aloud the name of someone gone, but not yet forgotten.”
I have been visiting Katy Alyssa Sleath’s grave since 2003, when I attended Bread Loaf for the first time. She lies in Woodlawn Cemetery, just off Route 100 in Rochester, Vermont. I was staying then in a B&B about five miles from Rochester, and I’d gone to the cemetery at some point because I like cemeteries, and because I needed a respite from the intensity of the conference. If you’ve been reading me for a while, you can guess why I was drawn to this monument — the crossed hockey sticks emblematic of a young woman who died when she was 18, the age my hockey-playing daughter was the first time I saw this spot.
I don’t know anything about Katy Alyssa beyond what I can deduce from the stone. She died the summer she was 18, and someone thought to inscribe her gravestone with an airplane, a turtle, crossed hockey sticks, and the the words “If there’s any miracle in this world, any mystery, it’s individuality.” I imagine her as a vibrant and energetic youngster, not unlike the 18-year-olds I knew so well then who are now in their late twenties. She’s been gone only 13 years, far too soon to have been forgotten by family and friends.
Nevertheless, when I arrived for my annual visit on Sunday, August 21, the plot looked as you see it at right. Weeds had taken over much of the pebbled area in front and were infiltrating the potted plant. The coleus that appear to mark the boundaries of the plot looked bedraggled. The next day, my last full day on the mountain, I went down to Aubochon Hardware in Middlebury and began assembling something I’d thought of about a year ago but had never followed through on — my One Kind Favor kit. I bought a 5-quart bucket, a weeding fork and a trowel, garden shears, and some gloves. At Hannaford I bought a gallon jug of water and a pot of miniature yellow mums. Then I went back up to Rochester, pulled weeds as much as I was able, considering I didn’t have a kneeling pad (next on my list of things for the kit) nor a very clear idea of what I was doing. I replaced the pot of flowers that had been there, and added my own, gave the area some water, and left, hoping I had not intruded nor usurped the office of someone who usually does these things for Katy.
What’s done is done. I’ll be back next year, as a visitor to the mountain if Bread Loaf does not officially admit me. And I’ll bring flowers for Katy again.
(Addendum: Just as I was finishing this piece, someone posted a link on Facebook to this article about the effects of Hurricane Irene on Rochester. It begins: “Coffins lie exposed at the village cemetery, having popped out of the ground. Homes are reduced to what look like piles of giant matchsticks. A weathered brown house hangs precariously out over a creek, an enormous chunk of soil underneath chewed away by floodwaters.” Alas.)