Monday, January 14, 2008

Little Star Cemetery ~ Where It All Started

A lot of people know about my interest in cemeteries. Not many people know how that interest started. The most common question I hear when someone knows that I photograph cemeteries is "Why?", and the next is "How did you get into doing that?". Those questions have an easy answer, although they are still too complicated to explain to the casual question. Here is the long explanation that I can't often give when someone asks me.

My grandfather, William Thomas Cooper, was a Reverend in a little town called Grayson, Louisiana. He and my grandmother, Bessie, lived on a road where they had the only house. At the end of the road was a small cemetery. Little Star Cemetery held the graves of my grandmothers first husband who had passed away while she was pregnant with my Uncle, and her two babies that passed away shortly after their birth. Grandpa took care of the cemetery over the years by mowing and keeping up the graves. I have since learned that other people helped with this as well. When we would visit Louisiana my sister and I would go to the cemetery with him to play while he would work. And that led to times when we would walk down the dirt and rock road to play and investigate the graves on our own. That might seem strange to some people but to us it was a nice place to be and our mother didn't have to worry about us. It had a fence so we couldn't go anywhere and let's face it, no one could get us there because they were all 'otherwise engaged'. While at Little Star we would also visit the graves with our Grandma and our mother. We were told the stories of the two babies, our Grandma's first husband, Willis, and his mother, Emily, and a special friend of the family, Mr. Tony Cardot. At the time I never realized that I was gleaning history from these casual visits to the cemetery. I now wish I could go back to those days and write everything down as it would be so helpful to my research.

At Little Star there is a very special grave. His name is James Earl Grant. I would often sit at his grave when my cousins would play there. They sometimes made fun of me for sitting there for so long. However, this grave was special to me and I was always drawn to it. In my mind James Earl was about 3 years old. I knew he was a young child but since I was so young I never took much notice of the dates on his stone. His grave was partly above ground and always had shells on it. No matter how many years passed those shells were always there. I always thought it strange that so far from the ocean a grave would have shells on it. As my love of cemeteries grew I began to photograph the headstones. I never knew what to do with the photographs but I guess I knew one day an opportunity would arrive.

One day while searching the internet for some family names I saw my grandfathers' name. The link took me to a site called Findagrave. It was there that I found a community to share my photos and stories of graving. I added my photo of my special angel, James Earl, on Findagrave. I received an e-mail from a lady who told me that she was his sister and that she wondered why I had added him to Findagrave. After exchanging emails with her I learned more about him and her family. I learned that he was only 2 months old and he passed away from SIDS in 1948. I also learned that she had always wondered why the shells were on his grave and had never been given an answer from her parents. One day while looking at his memorial on Findagrave I saw a beautiful picture of him as a newborn with his mother holding him. The caption on the photo said "This is for you James Earl, you and Julie". His sister had left the picture there for him and for me. I was so touched that she would do that. There is a little more to the story of me and James Earl and only about 5 people on earth know the whole true story, she is one. I won't share it with anyone else. It is too special. We still e-mail today, it turns out that our Grandmothers were friends and she still has a rocking chair that my Grandfather made for her Grandmother.

It truly is a small world.

So when people look at me strangely when they find out I'm a modern day grave hunter, I just smile. Because inside I know the joys of the things that have happened in my life just from taking a few pictures in a lonely cemetery on a hot afternoon. Or walking the cemetery in the freezing cold after an ice storm with a loved one and the joy that can bring, and the history I can learn. Or the excitement I feel when I get and e-mail from a stranger that says, "You took a picture of my uncle's headstone; he was killed in the line of duty". Or the wonder I felt when I found a headstone that said "Time Reveals All Things, Assassinated in Brenham Texas". That headstone sent me on a search for a newspaper from the 1800's where I found out he had been shot on the front porch of a saloon. He had once been involved in a shoot out with Belle Starr. His killer was never found. Where else can your mind be prompted to go on such a hunt? Imagine how touched I felt when I walked upon the most beautiful angel monument I have ever seen and in her hands was one single red rose, left only long enough to have wilted perfectly to the form of her hands as if it was one with her hands, the love of that sight, to know that someone else had walked in that very spot only hours earlier. I have been brought to tears, jumped for joy, said "there you are, finally", severely saddened, broken hearted, thankful, grateful and happy, Where else can you be prompted to have such varied emotions in one place? Only in one place I can think of.

A cemetery.

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