Down in Burnettown, S.C., where Highway 1 meets Sudlow Lake Road, there’s Sunset Memory Gardens. It’s a perpetual care cemetery, a place with no upright grave markers and no fences—nothing that’ll get in the way of the tractors that keep the Bermuda grass cut nice and low.
In Burnettown in the ’60s and ’70s, a perpetual care cemetery seemed like a fine idea to my middle-aged kinfolk, who’d spent a lot of Sundays at little church cemeteries, dutifully tending the family plots. I spent many a bored Sunday moping around the Hollow Creek Baptist Church cemetery while my mother, Susie, and my Aunt Coot pulled weeds, raked leaves and swept acorns off their mother’s grave. When they finished with Grandma Pearl’s little plot, they cleaned off the graves of their long-dead Boyd and Cleckley kinfolk.
The descendants of those Boyds and Cleckleys clustered around Burnettown. Aunt Coot and Uncle Guy lived two doors down from our house, Aunt Bonnie and Uncle F.H. were about a quarter-mile up the road, and Uncle Ronald and Aunt Doris were about a mile north of us. The family was close—close enough so that nobody ever called before they came, and nobody ever knocked before coming in.
About the time my parents, aunts and uncles started closing in on age 40, they came to an agreement, brought on by many years of grave cleaning. They would all be buried in Sunset Memory Gardens, close enough together so that kinfolk could stand in one spot and visit with all the mamas and daddies, aunts and uncles. Not long after they made that agreement, the graves started filling up.
My mother, Susie, was the first to go, at age 45. She woke up in the middle of the night screaming, saying she was having a heart attack. Well, Susie knew a heart attack when she had one. She squeezed my hand on her way to the ambulance, said, “be a good boy,” and headed for the hospital. She made a quick but useless stop there, caught a ride to Posey’s funeral home, then went to her new place in Sunset Memory Gardens.
My daddy, Jabo, had to work out a payment plan with the folks at the graveyard—a little money down and a little every month. While he was thinking about buying graves, he bought one for himself, and two more just in case I might want to be buried there too, along with whatever wife I might take.
Jabo was the next to go, five years after Susie. One Saturday evening, I washed up Jabo’s Cadillac, then watched him drive off to the AMVETS club with his new wife, the evil and snake-faced Montine. He never came back. Jabo Jowers, a man who loved to dance, hit the floor to do a little boogaloo, then hit the floor and didn’t get up. A couple days later, a man from Sunset Memory Gardens came to the house and explained to me that Jabo’s plot wasn’t quite paid for. So I swapped my plot and my wife-to-be’s plot—which weren’t quite paid for, either—for the balance due on Jabo’s plot.
Uncle F.H. was next. He and Aunt Bonnie went to spend a weekend in their trailer by the lake, but F.H. didn’t finish the weekend. As with Jabo and Susie, his heart just wore out. A few years later, Bonnie’s whole body wore out, and she joined F.H.
Soon after, Aunt Coot got lung cancer. That made her mad, because she was expecting a heart attack. I went to see her while she was in the hospital. As I walked up to Coot’s door, sweet and stoic Uncle Guy stopped me and told me that I’d better not be crying while I was in there, and I shouldn’t let on that I knew Aunt Coot was going to die. Well, as soon as I walked in the room, Coot took the deepest breath she could, locked eyes with me, then squeezed out one word: “pallbearer.” Right then and there, I started crying. I’m sure Uncle Guy was disappointed in me, but hell, Coot started it.
This year, Uncle Ronald finally wore out. He moved into Sunset Memory Gardens next to Aunt Doris, who died many years earlier.
Last July, my cousin Sheila took Uncle Guy to a doctor’s appointment. Guy, who’d gotten frail and tired in the years since Coot passed, looked at Sheila and said, “I just want to go.”
“You mean go home?” Sheila asked.
“No,” Guy replied. “I just want to go.” A few days later, he did—in his sleep.
Here it is Christmastime, and all I can think about is all the Burnettown Christmases, when all those people were alive and it seemed like they would last forever. Christmas was guaranteed and perfect, with the same faces around the table, and the same 20 Christmas cakes. Christmas was right when Jabo Jowers was dancing with a good heart and spending all of Christmas day showing me how to play with my toys.
This year, though, with the last of the old kinfolk gone to their little hillside in Sunset Memory Gardens, I don’t see Jabo dancing. I see Uncle Guy’s brass marker, still shiny and waiting for patina, a perfect reminder that neither Christmas, nor any other day, is guaranteed.