15 November 2009

Forgotten Graveyards

You probably know about the Texas State Cemetery on Navasota Street just east of I-35, which according to its website is “the final resting place of Governors, Senators, Legislators, Congressmen, Judges and other legendary Texans who have made the state what it is today.” You may have even been to Oakwood Cemetery a few blocks north – the oldest cemetery in Austin with graves dating back to the 1760s. There is one cemetery, however, you may have never heard of. It’s not the oldest, or the largest, or the most historically significant, but it exists as an oddity, frozen in time, inconspicuous between new apartment complexes and restaurants.

Perhaps you’ve sat at Trudy’s palapa bar off Stassney, without realizing that right across the street is Williamson Creek Cemetery. It’s completely enclosed by a chain link fence and padlocked gate, designated by the Texas Historical Commission. Although I do not necessarily encourage illegal trespassing, there is a secret way to enter without disturbing the fence, and I made sure to remain on the remnants of the foot pathways – all for the sake of undercover journalism!

Most of the tombstones are crumbling and their inscriptions are weathered, or the markers are simply gone with only sunken earth as evidence of a decomposed grave. The Austin Genealogical Society cemetery database doesn’t give a clear record of the earliest grave, but the Austin History Center does have a complete inventory. With my own amateur photography, I documented a few tombstones dating back to 1891 and 1895. There is one newly placed plaque at the foot of a live oak tree – while the marker is obviously recent, the grave of James P. Eagle is dated 1863.

I experienced a sensation of strangeness being in this cemetery, not because it was haunted, but from my fleeting encounter. Because I had a feeling I shouldn’t be there and the sun was about to set, I only had a brief period of time to absorb the details of each grave: the variation of the carved letter types and decorative motifs, or the way they were neglected with overgrown weeds and not a single fresh flower. Clearly, some of these sites had not been visited in years, or maybe even since the time of burial – yet someone had taken the time to try to reconstruct some of the broken tombstones. My memory of the cemetery’s particulars is now hazy, and all I have are a few photographs to help me write about the visit.

In this way, I think about my maternal grandmother, Maria Ines Lopez Gurrola, who passed away on January 8, 2007. Sometimes, my sadness comes not just from the fact that she is no longer around, but that I wasn’t able to take in more of her while she was alive – her stories, her mannerisms, and her intelligence. The only things that remain are her belongings, photographs, a few home videos, and a cassette tape with her final childhood recollections in Durango, Mexico during the Cristero War. She was in many ways, the undercover Mexican grandmother.

She did not cook very much, leaving that chore to my grandfather. My most distinct memory of one of the few times of her making something in the kitchen involved Lebanese kibbeh and homemade yogurt. She was mostly busy running accounts for the flower shop, Florería Mayali, she owned in Aguascalientes. She did not teach me how to sew or iron, but she did teach me how to read, and how to drink a small glass of wine with dinner like European children.

As I get older, I think about how much of life is consumed by technology to record our moments. I see people more focused on how the photograph will look on their social networking profile the next day, rather than letting their minds capture the moment. When we are at the end of our lives, will we clearly remember our experiences, or will we have to do an internet search to find them?

Click here to read the published version of this article in the October issue of TODO Austin.

1 comment:

  1. Digital photography has even made it worse in some ways. Sure it's much cheaper without film and all, but now we often just store photos on the computer or some sort of media file. We probably take more pictures now, but how many of us really keep good track of them. No telling how many picture memories get lost. When we used to use film we'd take the film to get developed and end up with tons of printed photographs that would get stored away in boxes or albums to be looked at later at which time memories would be revived.
    Now I've got a bunch of discs and computer files that I have to look at on a computer screen unless I get them printed, which is rarely.