No tombstoning when placing stories on the newspaper page, I used to advise my students. So much language of death in the process of preparing the news, I remember: the morgue was the library of old stories, widows and orphans refer to single words or lines left dangling at the top or bottom of a column of type, and tombstoning is placing headlines side by side on a page like the rows of tombstones in a cemetery.
I was already thinking of tombstones—not just from newspaper terminology but the stones with stories that mark the places of dear ones—when I happened to hear an excerpt from A. R. Ammons’ poem “Tombstones” and North Carolina composer Kenneth Frazzelle’s “Motion of Stone,” a music composition based on the poem, on a recent morning.
A.R. Ammons, a nationally acclaimed poet also with North Carolina roots, wrote about tombstones:
the chisel, chipping in,
finds names the
wind can’t blow away
Listening to excerpts of Frazzelle’s “Motion of Stone,” a meditation on memorials, I heard a tenor voice singing Ammons’ lines “it breaks the heart/that stone holds/what time let go.”
Thinking of the stone that marks the space where my daughter’s body lies (and it is really a gravestone since there is no tomb), I am thinking of what time let go. The last day of the year is Elizabeth’s birthday. She was born on the last day of 1980, a day that seemed just on the cusp of looking ahead—to a new decade, a new year, a new familiar of family with two sons and a daughter to grow together. And that decade, that year, that day, that new familiar remains a part of me always.
But I wish I were planning a party for her now instead of musing about cold stones and their words.
I imagine in a magical realism sort of way that I could just erase the letters chiseled into the white Italian stone that spell my daughter’s name and claim her again in this world, in this time. Or I could fill the letters in with putty, wiping out the reality that she died so young.
I have just spent several joyful days with some of my granddaughters, and I am anticipating the birth of another grandchild soon. How can I giggle with granddaughters who give me a spiky hairdo and don’t laugh at me when I dance with them and think of cold tombstones in a parallel thought? Simply this: I still miss and love my daughter and I dearly love my children and grandchildren who remain here.
Ammons wrote the words for me: “it breaks the heart/ that stone holds/ what time let go.” Part of my heart has letters chiseled so deep that I cannot erase them. Part of my heart has giggles and silly songs and joy. Sometimes the parts overlap. All of the heart parts are part of me.