Moving off of my property for this post, but only just, and I promise a good story. About five minutes from my house, there’s a church and cemetery.
Mt. Zion Old School Baptist Church was the site of a Civil War skirmish, a hospital, and a barracks (among other things). Graffiti dots its walls, tangible remnants of the soldiers who recovered within them. Its congregation met until 1980, and it is now a public park offering educational events, tours, and event rental space. The adjoining cemetery contains both marked graves – including one War of 1812 veteran – and at least 64 unmarked African American graves that lie outside of the cemetery’s gray stone walls. It sits along a historic roadbed, at a crossroads that was, once upon a time, essential to travel in Loudoun County.
There aren’t many places in the area that have seen quite as much history as Mt. Zion, and, when I first visited, I was intrigued to find that it’s even considered a Historic Site in Journalism. (I didn’t know such a thing existed, and am happy to have that knowledge, now.)
The text on the plaque reads:
In the graveyard adjoining this church, on June 23, 1863, Harpers Illustrated Weekly’s Alfred A. Waud, one of the Civil War’s most renowned artists, dug the grave for the burial of his friend, Lynde Walter Buckingham, the chief cavalry correspondent for the New York Herald.
Buckingham had spent the day of June 21 covering what would become one of the largest cavalry battles in U.S. history, in and around the villages of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. At the front with Union General Judson Kilpatrick throughout the June 21 fight, Buckingham was on his way to Washington with his account of the fighting when Confederate Partisan fighters under Major John Singleton Mosby’s command overtook him and caused his horse to dash down a steep hill and throw its rider powerfully to the ground. Buckingham later died of injuries to his skull in a makeshift Union Army hospital within this church.
After burying his friend, Waud rode on to Gettysburg, where on July 2 and 3 he sketched scenes of the fighting there that continue to shape Americans’ views of that epic battle. A couple of days after Buckingham’s burial, Union Captain Webster, an old friend of his, came to Mt. Zion with an escort and ambulance to disinter the body and send the remains to Buckingham’s family.
The Society of Professional Journalists hereby designates Mt. Zion Old School Baptist Church and Graveyard a Historic Site in Journalism. For as long as they exist, they will recall the devotion to duty and fellow man that embody the best qualities of America’s war correspondents.
Marked this 14th day of June, 2013.
It’s a sad story, isn’t it? And a tragic memory worth preserving. But there’s life and community at Mt. Zion these days, as the curious passerby and the avid history buff alike drop in to look around and learn, and to enjoy the beautiful rural viewshed ideal for an afternoon picnic.
I’m sure Mt. Zion has many, many stories left to tell.
I read this book recently, which gives brief descriptions of the routines of famous writers, artists, and other creatives.
I’d recommend it, if you’re looking for a fun, quick read. And it did get me thinking.
When I decided to pursue writing as more than just a hobby, I thought I’d develop a routine and habits, in the same way I’d developed them working in an office – a 9:00 a.m. coffee, a quick walking break mid-day, a late afternoon rush of productivity. But that never happened. I do write a fair amount, most weeks, but never on any kind of schedule, and never as part of a regular practice. And when people ask what my routine is, I never really know what to say.
“Well, while still in last night’s pajamas, I sit in the recliner in my living room and I drink coffee until I’m jittery, and then I type frantically on my laptop until something happens. And then I keep at it until it’s done, which is sort of indeterminate and looks different every day, but I really can’t focus on anything else until I hit some kind of stopping point and please don’t ask me to. And then it’s usually time to eat something or at least drink water because I’ve forgotten to do that all day.”
Like, is that a routine? That doesn’t seem like a routine. But it works for me, at least most of the time.
Though I hate to be asked, I confess I do find it fascinating how different people approach the act of creating. I feel like it’s deeply personal to each creator, and that’s probably why it’s often hard to explain. Or, for some, why it’s easy.
When I was in third grade, my class had two pets – a cute, chubby red and white guinea pig, and two bright green praying mantises that I thought looked a lot like aliens. At the end of every week, two students were chosen, by popular vote of the class, to take the pets home and care for them until Monday. I desperately wanted to bring the guinea pig home for the weekend. But when my name finally came up and the class voted, I got…the praying mantises.
So there I was at the end of Friday, trundling down the steps off the school bus, saddled with my backpack, my spring windbreaker, the books that wouldn’t fit in my backpack, my lunch box, and a wire cage containing two potentially extraterrestrial life forms that I had absolutely no idea what to do with. When I opened the door and plopped the cage down on the kitchen table, my mother was predictably less than pleased.
“What is THAT?”
“Why do you have those?”
I explained what happened, and she told me I shouldn’t volunteer to take the class pets home ever again. Honestly, I don’t blame her.
Fast forward about thirty years, give or take, and my garden is positively brimming with brown praying mantises right now. It might be karma. But they’re actually kind of interesting to watch, so I’m not complaining.
We’ve been seeing them mostly on our windows at night, seeking out moths to snack on. Earlier this week, though, my husband looked out the window of his study and found this little guy hanging out in our euonymus.
He’s sort of cute, actually. And very photogenic.
And possibly has aspirations to conduct an orchestra?
Live your dream, buddy.
I don’t want him inside my house, would not even consider keeping him as a pet, but as an occasional visitor who keeps to himself, he’s perfectly welcome.
We get all sorts of critters and beasties on our property. We’ve got a family of deer who come through in the evenings, a groundhog who loves our still-growing orchard, opossums, butterflies, cardinals and other little native birds, and the occasional black bear. And there are two spoiled animals who live *inside* the house with us.
These two really enjoy their creature comforts, and the consistent access to snuggles, soft places to sleep, and snacks.
We’re constantly looking out our back window to see who might be visiting, and back in the spring we were delighted to learn that a family of foxes – mom, dad, and kits – had made a den under our barn. They normally popped out around sunset for playtime and dinner, and we tried to snap some pictures without scaring them.
We found them to be lovely neighbors. They were very adept at controlling the field mouse population, and so fun to watch (from a distance, of course).
The kits have grown up now and I think they’ve moved on, but we still see a fox or two out back under the willow tree from time to time. I’d like to think they feel as happy and at home here as I do.
When we moved into our house back in 2016, the previous owners told us that there were four Civil War bullets in our breakfast room ceiling.
Though we knew the house was built around 1820, we didn’t realize until later that it actually sits in a Civil War Battlefield Study Area. I’m sure that if we headed out to our back field with a metal detector, we’d find some interesting artifacts. I’m actually surprised we haven’t done that already. We don’t own a metal detector, so perhaps that’s why.
At any rate, before we even got unpacked, the first thing we did – and I’m serious, the very first thing – was examine that ceiling. We found three bullets fairly quickly.
The first three were easy to spot, but we’ve never found the fourth. Which means we’ll just have to keep looking!
(P.S. – I bought a metal detector. So there’s that.)
All of my stories are a bit personal, in one way or another, and all of them have at least a kernel of truth or two. This one is special, because it’s extra personal, and because there’s a lot more than just a crumb or two of real life. I couldn’t think of anything else to write for this month. This is the only story that wanted telling.
“You really don’t have to do that, you know.”
Sara stood in front of the sink, peeling a peach. Sticky juice dripped down her fingers and into the basin. If she’d been smart, she’d have thought to get a bowl and collect it. Wasted juice made for a dry cobbler, and she would not be taking a dry cobbler to the funeral dinner. She’d rather turn up empty-handed than risk her reputation on dry cobbler.
“Sure, I do,” she said.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” said her mother, from her perch at the breakfast bar.
Really, Sara shouldn’t be cooking anything. As family of the deceased, Sara’s obligations consisted of weeping quietly, accepting condolences and awkward hugs, and finding a place in her grandfather’s tiny kitchen for the massive collection of casserole dishes and KFC buckets friends and neighbors had been dropping off for the last three days.
“It’s what I can do,” she replied. “And it’s what I want to do. Can you grab me a bowl?”
“You’re just like him,” her mother said, and passed a green plastic bowl over from the pantry. “You always have to be busy.”
“So, you’re saying it’s genetic?”
Sara could practically hear her mother’s eyes roll. She looked over and winked.
“Just like him,” her mother said.
“I’ll miss him.”
Sara’d been living in California for the last three years. She hadn’t gotten home as often as she wanted to, and when she heard her grandfather had died, it’d felt like a punch to the gut. When she moved, he’d been as hearty as ever. He’d refused to slow down. He’d laid floor tile and worked on old trucks and split firewood, and even now, she just couldn’t imagine him as a frail old man. He’d never even lost his hair, until cancer treatments took it from him. Sara dreaded old age.
“Let’s go outside once this is ready to bake,” she told her mother. “I’d like to enjoy the view for a little while before we head to the funeral home. It might be the last time I’ll see it.” She tried her best to hide it, wiped it away as fast as she could, but a single tear trickled halfway down her cheek. “I don’t think I ever realized how special it was.”
“Your grandpa used to say this was God’s country,” her mother said. Sara heard a sniffle and the rustling of a tissue. “He was proud of you. He wanted you to come home, though.”
“I’m sorry this is happening on your birthday. He’d hate that.”
Sara was grateful the cobbler was ready to bake. She shoved it in the oven and went straight to the door. She just needed a minute, just a second, to pull herself together. Outside, August heat radiated off every surface, and the humidity settled around her shoulders like a weighted blanket, close and heavy. Sara sat down in the porch swing and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, and another. She heard the screen door open and close, and then felt her mother sit beside her.
“I’m glad I get to share today with him,” Sara said, and opened her eyes, squinting against the bright morning sunlight. “I just wish none of this was even happening.”
“I know,” her mother said. “Me, too.” She took Sara’s hand and held it.
They sat like that, hand in hand, in silence, just looking out at the mountains in front of them, the fields and pastures, and the little church down in the valley.
“Do you remember when you locked your grandma out of the house?” Sara’s mother asked, and giggled.
“I don’t! I don’t think I ever did that. I wasn’t that mean when I was little.”
“Oh, you did,” her mother said. “And you told her she was old and you were new.”
“Oh, God, I did not!”
“You most definitely did, Miss Meanness,” her mother replied.
“I was a terrible child,” Sara admitted. “Do you remember the little girl who used to stay in the old house down the hill?”
“I used to go down and play with her. I can’t remember her name.” Sara thought about it, and couldn’t remember much, except, “the bats! There were bats in the attic and she used to talk about how she’d hear them in the middle of the night. They kept her awake.”
Sara’s mother didn’t reply.
“She had long dark hair and freckles,” Sara added.
“Sara,” her mother said, “no one’s lived in that house since I was in school.”
“Well, she didn’t live there all the time. She just visited family.”
“That house has been empty for years.”
“No,” Sara insisted. “No, I remember playing with her.”
“You must be thinking of something else,” her mother said.
“No,” Sara said. She thought of it again, the little girl and her pink bedroom, her tattered white curtains, how she laughed when Sara didn’t know how to braid. “No, I remember.”
The oven timer buzzed, pulling Sara out of the moment. She went inside. She had things to do. No matter what else might happen today, no matter how faulty her memory might or might not be, she would not let that beautiful biscuit crust burn.
After the funeral and the dinner that followed, Sara went back to her grandfather’s house with the rest of her family. The sun hung low on the horizon now, almost invisible behind the ridge line. She sat on the porch swing alone, rocking gently back and forth. The high heat of the day had broken, but she could still feel the dewy, warm air through her itchy funeral clothes.
She hated funerals. She hated everything about them. She hoped no one would ever plan a funeral for her.
“Just put me in the ground and drink some wine,” she said, out loud for no particular reason.
“You know this family doesn’t drink, right?”
Sara’s uncle walked out onto the porch and sat beside her.
“Sure they do,” she answered. “Just not in public.”
“Like all good Baptists,” her uncle added. “I’m sorry about your birthday.”
“Everyone’s said that,” Sara said. “It’s fine. I’m actually kind of honored to share the day with him.”
“When are you heading back?”
“A couple of days, I think.” Sara hadn’t checked her work phone since coming home. She didn’t know what kind of mess she’d walk back into. “I’m not sure.”
“We’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss y’all, too.”
“You can always come back. They’ve got newspapers here.”
Sara wouldn’t be coming back here to live, not ever. But she said, “I know. Maybe someday.”
Her uncle nodded and stood up.
“Hey,” she said, “before you go, can I ask you something weird?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Do you remember the family that used to live down the hill?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“There was a little girl, right? About my age?”
Her uncle thought for a moment. “Yeah, they had a little girl.”
“Oh, thank God. I thought I was crazy.”
Her uncle nodded. “I’m surprised you know that, though.”
“Why?” Sara felt a pang in her stomach, doubt or fear or something deeper.
“You never met her. They were gone before you were born.”
“Yeah, they lost her. She died in a car accident. They moved not long after it happened. Not sure where they went.”
Her uncle went inside, leaving Sara alone again, in the deepening dark. She looked down the hill, at the white steeple and the gray ruin of a house just visible in the last light of the day. And she remembered being down in the pasture, playing with a dark-haired little girl, spinning in dizzying circles and giggling so hard she got hiccups. She remembered her grandfather calling down to her, his gruff voice beckoning her back home.
“Sara,” he’d said, “get back up here! It’s not safe down there by yourself.”
Now he was gone, and Sara knew her family would sell the house.
“If we keep it, every time we walk in, we’ll just be expecting to see them and they won’t be there,” her mother had said.
Sara wouldn’t be back here again. This view, the porch swing, the mystery girl. None of it would belong to her anymore. She’d only have the memories. She supposed death was always like that, leaving you with questions and no one to answer them, with memories and no place to ground them. What a birthday present.
Sara stood up and stretched her arms. After one last, long look, she walked inside.
It’s ended up being a rainy day today. Here’s the view out of my back window:
Normally, there’s a mountain back there. Today, just clouds and downpours. I think we’re getting what’s left of Hurricane Laura.
I’ve spent the day procrastinating writing a short story for August. I made cacio e pepe for lunch and banana and oatmeal cookies for breakfast tomorrow. I watched Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and I gave myself a manicure. I’ve already had two Diet Cokes.
All of this not working got me thinking, and I think it would be fun to write some short posts featuring the various odds, ends, and interesting items my husband and I find in and around our 200-year-old farmhouse. Trust me, it’s a lot. Like, right after we moved in, we found a machete hidden above an air duct in our basement. Not sure what that was about, or how long it was there before we found it.
Anyway, I’ll try to make this a weekly thing, and we’ll call it “Found Friday.”
Back in the spring, we planted some apple trees in our back garden, to accompany some cherry trees we’d planted the year before. One of these days, I’ll make all the pies, if I can manage to keep the trees alive long enough to produce fruit.
As we were digging, we started to find fragments of pottery and bone china. The bone china seems to have grown legs and walked off, but I’ve still got a pretty sizable chunk of the pottery (which I found, again, when I was doing some cleaning over the weekend).
I wonder what this looked like, when it was whole. And I wonder how old it is. It’s interesting, living in a house that so many people have called home before us. I’m sure we’ll leave something behind, too.