Bonaventure feels old. Really old. But beautiful. It feels like a destination after a long journey. I was told it’s a 10-minute drive from downtown but was once hours by horseback. In fact, the winding roads going up to it from two directions bespeak of an old carriage road that was never straightened. At the main entrance stand towering live oaks that look like elder guardians and an elegant brick caretaker’s house with pristine flower gardens. It’s a city office today, but was first the home of the cemetery’s sexton families. You ever look at a house and get the feeling it knows things? This one does. Especially those upstairs rooms, but they weren’t talking. Again, those confounding dualities of the Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil Savannah. Mysteries hidden like you have to earn them or wait til they come to you.
My first clues? Little bat or gargoyle wings cast into the main iron gates and these two statues capping the entrance pillars. These “Mary” figures look sleepy and kind of sensual prompting in the reverent spectacle what felt a semi-blasphemous thought, Can cemeteries be sexy?“Can cemeteries be sexy?” Before I could give that much attention, I saw something looking at me. An eye shape on what appeared to be the main cemetery map board encased in glass. Sure enough as I approached, the eye was there (not unlike the one on the business card given to me by Sabine). I walked closer and as I did the sunlight went from feeling yellow to golden. I mused, “Shadows and sunlight are stronger in here.”
When I got to the map board, I saw that the cemetery is rather large to say the least (100-200 acres). As I looked at this very distinct hieroglyphic-like eye, the map seemed to have a profile of a head around it. I’d seen things on TV about map makers and park planners using symbols and other impressions of antiquity inside such designs but wondered if it was my over-active imagination. The Victorians were into the iconography of the Egyptians, although this head reminded me of those murals of bald slaves or perhaps a pharaoh without his headdress. Near the map board was a yellow wooden arrow on a temporary stake. Taped to it was a piece of printer paper bearing a name and time, “Martin – 2pm.” I presumed this was pointing funeral goers to a plot, so I decided to walk in that direction. It was still early, and I might meet someone interesting.
As I roamed, I was taken with how garden-like Bonaventure seemed. The sheer number of live oaks dressed out in dangling moss cobwebs. It occurred to me that if one was seeking to conceal anything gothic or creepy, they might consider sticking to just palm trees. The live oaks are like something out of Tolkien’s imagination, waving gnarled arms with mouths that are both yawning or screaming in the serenity. As you pass, it’s as if they’re saying, “Wait til the sun goes down, that is when our day begins.”
Just ahead I could see a black van and a green tent. I continued to pass through an array of mourning statues, towering obelisks several stories high, broken columns and urns covered in veils. The many symbols made me aware of how so many religious views live on the backs of others and how diverse Savannah is or had once been. Suddenly more eyes were on me. A small headstone depicted the faces of three children peering from inside a heart-shaped window as if they were in heaven looking down on their family. The expressions of sympathy carved into their tiny faces was so natural. I marveled at the artist’s skill while trying to comprehend the mother, who in 1903, lay with all three of them lifeless in her arms. Standing over this small grave there was a simple but jarring phrase stamped in bold letters…(TRIPLETS). The parenthesis there as if to whisper the impact. Neighboring were the headstones of two other children for what appeared to be a total of five lost by a single mother. I was reminded of how novelist Mary Shelley had lost several children during childbirth and that “Frankenstein” in some way was her processing her anger toward God.
“Those are the carvings of John Walz,” a voice announced from behind.
As I whirled around, an older man stood there, probably in his 70s, breathing tubes extending from his nostrils leading to an oxygen tank strung over his shoulder.
“Sorry if I startled you, young man. I’m here for a friend’s service and came early to walk around as I’ve got a lot of family and memories here,” he reminisced. He called himself Mike Deegan.
“Who was this sculptor again?” I asked.
“John Walz. He was from Philly, married a Savannah girl and made our cemeteries more beautiful for sure…yeah, Savannah really lucked out with him,” he noted with a certain pride.
“Mike, is it true that those sculptors made their livings, so to speak, from children’s deaths during that period..it really seems like their graves are everywhere,” I noted.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he sighed. Mike then popped up and asked, Have you met Little Gracie?“Have you met Little Gracie?”
Telling him no, he asked if he could introduce me. As we walked, Mike spoke of many names and families. Although the monuments seemed more than twice his age, he spoke of them as if he had known them. I heard both happiness and sorrow in his voice as if he wished they were still here.
Mike stopped in the road for a moment, wheezing, “Kid, whatever you do, don’t smoke anything stronger than pot…man, I shoulda listened to my friends at Haight-Ashbury,” he chuckled.
For all of the hushed conversation in Savannah, it’s amazing what residents will actually tell you if they determine you’re worthy. Like they want you to carry the truth outside of the walls and share, but not give them up at the same time in their home town. Mike said the reason he could talk more like this was because he lived way out in another county now.
As we continued to walk, I seemed to miss the major monuments in plots as I was struck by all of the children’s graves tucked at the back of family plots. Whereas monuments to adults were often bold, gray granite pieces, the memorials to children appeared stark white as if the stone marked their innocence. Tiny, even miniature headstones with little marble borders surrounding the grave poked out, and depending on their lengths, hinted at the child’s age at death. Toddlers a foot or so long mixed with slightly longer pieces of marble of children closer to 7 or 10 years old. According to Mike, these were flower beds where ivy once grew or morning glories, and now most are barren. There were reclined lambs carved into the top portions of some, with the occasional toy or trinket placed by family or perhaps a random stranger moved by the loneliness of one grave. I pondered if these were some of the lights and sources of the laughter at night. Do people hear it during the day?
As we turned down a road bearing the sign, “Gracie Section,” there were a few cars parked narrowly by a fenced-in plot and several people standing in front smiling and stretching their arms above or through the fence to take pictures. Rising above some interior shrubs, there stood a glowing white marble statue of a small, pleasant-looking girl seated on a bench. One hand of the child was resting on a tree that looked chopped in half, a vine climbing it, the other hand holding perhaps a flower, and the pedestal she was seated on had branches forming the girl’s name, “GRACIE.” There were toys scattered in the front part of the plot, some handwritten notes and coins placed along the railing of the fence. She was also holding a toy teddybear on her lap, evidence that the fence didn’t deter everyone. There was a marble plaque with a few details but I preferred to hear Mike’s take on her.
“Who was she?” I asked.
She’s Savannah.“She’s Savannah,” Mike replied. “Her mother and father had a fancy hotel downtown during the “Cotton Boom” and Gracie was their only child. There was something special about her and everyone knew it. Everyone came to see her at the hotel (that was their home)…mayors, politicians all saw her as good luck, travelers too that were so far from their families. She must’ve been an old soul or something. People would give her things because they believed it meant their own families would be well when they returned off a long road,” he remarked.
“Newspapers and travel journals talked about her for awhile and it seemed like everyone wanted to know her…but she died when she was six in 1889 of pneumonia. Some say she got hit by a carriage first, but I don’t know that. First statue John Walz did in Savannah, and no one every forgot him for it…people were real sad over her death,” he noted solemnly.
“Every kid in Savannah grew up with her in a way…we all played around her before this fence was here, and you know, we all kept coming back to her as we grew older..she was like family, and I won’t lie, we might have had a beer or two with Gracie, but that’s ok, her parents owned a bar,” he laughed.
I asked him if he had more than oxygen in the tank, and after Mike stopped roaring over my jest, he looked at me like he was making a study and prompted, “Bet you wanna know the legend, huh?”
Of course I did, and said as much.
“Well don’t you believe that junk on the internet about her crying tears of blood…dumbest stuff I ever heard,” he fired back. “Even my grandmother told me this one, if you come out here under a full moon in the winter, all of these headstones are cold as ice, Gracie though – warm – like she’s still alive!”
As I looked at Mike’s elated face back over at Gracie, it seemed that she was smiling more than when we first arrived.
“She does that,” Mike boasted.
“What do you mean?” I chuckled.
“You saw her smile didn’t you?” he said proudly.
I thought to myself, had I? Was I becoming part of this illusory Savannah mindset?
Gracie suddenly seemed to me the reigning child; princess of “Heaven’s Playground”. Like she was the central figure in the cast; that all living and dead children came to pay homage to and perhaps lead their games. And for all of those who have no life-like statue, no headstone, no face, she symbolizes all of them. She is every child buried at Bonaventure.
“Why is Gracie here alone, Mike?”
His face grew sullen. He looked deeply at Gracie and said, “No one really knows, but after Walz unveiled the monument, her mother and father lost faith in the business…things…they sold the hotel, and within a few years were all gone. Guess they had nothing left for this place after such a golden time.”
Mike genuinely had tears in his eyes as he spoke, “Stranger still no one knows where they went or what happened to her parents.”
After holding back, I bravely asked, “Mike, do you know any ghost stories about Bonaventure?”
He shot me a look, and then humored, “Boy you really know how to work a guy!”
We both cracked up for a minute. I went on to tell him what I’d heard about the spook lights and children’s laughter. I could tell from his face he understood every word.
“So you wanna know about Heaven’s Playground?” Mike asked. “Now I don’t want you to think what I’m going to tell you is dark or evil or anything, because I think these kids out here have passed on but come back to fill this place with good energy and that’s what people feel out here day and night. They’re like cleaners of all the energy people come in with. They take people’s pain away, you see. They send everyone back to their lives good or better than they were before,” he concluded.
“I appreciate that Mike, but how does Gracie fit in?”
He went on, “Well before they put up that dern jail cell around her, the tradition was for everyone to come here and give Gracie a toy, maybe a coin and keep her company for a minute. The old saying is that she adopts every passerby and every passerby adopts her…she’s kind of the main attraction in “Heaven’s Playground” I guess you could say.”
He added, “But now she’s in a pen, and I don’t much like it. Gracie was out here for everybody. I know people do dumb things but I miss the old-fashioned way, you know…guess I’m showing my age.”
Out of the corner of my eye I noted that hearses and a string of cars were flowing into Bonaventure.
“Mike! Oh man, I forgot you were here for a funeral!”
He looked over in the direction of the tent and laughed, “Do I look like I’m in a hurry to get to a funeral, son? They need this oxygen more than me!”
We laughed. He appreciated my own quip when I told him that I too had a “deadline” waiting on me. As we were saying our goodbyes, I couldn’t resist asking, “Mike, has anyone ever seen Gracie’s ghost? I mean, does she play here or does she just sit here?”
He seemed impressed, “Son, I’ve never seen her myself, but I had some good friends who did. They used to live in that house up at the front for a long, long time. Just before the city moved in to take over the cemetery, there were my friends who were the sextons. One night in the heat of the summer, the grandmother and great grandmother were alone in the home when a friend dropped by. They were all sitting in the den with the door open with just the screen closed to catch the breeze off the bluff. Without a whisper, …there was suddenly a girl standing at the door with her hands on the screen and her nose pressed into it. She was just staring at them.there was suddenly a girl standing at the door with her hands on the screen and her nose pressed into it. She was just staring at them. The family friend took no notice of the girl’s appearance, but the other women knew who she was and couldn’t even speak. They said that the buttons on the girls dress were identical to that of Gracie’s, as were the style of shoes and buttons as well. The family friend was first to speak and asked the strange girl if there was something they could do for her. The girl responded by taking her hands off the screen and began to walk backwards away from the door. The family friend got up and went to the door and the other women followed. There the girl stood at the top of the steps, still staring at them and without a word, and without taking her eyes off of their’s, walked backwards down the steps and uncanny I tell ya, walked backwards staring at them back into the mist of the cemetery! Can you believe it? In reverse! Just gives me chills thinking about it and the two women of the family were stupified! But the family friend hadn’t made any spiritual connection and said casually to the women, “I’m going to go after her.” As she opened the screen door, an icy breeze blew into the house and the great-grandmother lunged at the woman yanking her back in and shrieked, “DON’T YOU DARE!” Once the two women explained to her who they believed had just visited them, their friend began to tremble with understanding and fear. Funniest part is, they went over to a bar in Thunderbolt that next minute and ordered themselves the biggest shots they’d ever drunk in their whole lives!”
Mike roared with laughter, yet I felt reluctant to do the same, as I stood there trying to process what he had just told me. Laughter was the last emotion I could conjure up thinking about not just a vaporous apparition doing this, but a flesh and blood statue spirit walking in the night.
“Why do you think Gracie did that or came to them in that way?” I managed to ask.
“Well, I can tell you what those women told me as a much younger man…since they were moving out they believed it was Gracie coming by in her own way to say goodbye to them, and a kind of “job well done for us here in the cemetery” parting moment. And I need a drink for just telling you that, young man,” he amusingly confided.
“But right now, I gotta go say a final toast to an old friend,” he said as he turned to go.
Some crows nearby began to caw in the trees and he commented, “Oh boy, that ain’t good luck. People used to say if you heard that at a funeral, meant someone else in your family was going to die. Sure hope it ain’t me, I gotta lot more to do today!”
I told him the crow would probably die before he would, I heard him laugh approvingly as he walked away. As I turned to leave, I caught sight of a note that didn’t seem to be there the whole time Mike and I were talking. It was a little weathered, yellow piece of journal paper, tied to Gracie’s gate, written in a child’s hand:
Dear Gracie, my baby brother came to join you last week. Please take good care of him for us. I loved him very much. Love, Jenny“Dear Gracie, my baby brother came to join you last week. Please take good care of him for us. I loved him very much. Love, Jenny”
Her handwriting told me she wasn’t more than 5 years old. Right about the same age as Gracie when she passed. A part of me wished I could tell Jenny that it would be ok and that Gracie would be looking out for her little brother.
That’s the thing about Savannah. It has the most beautiful of living things and the most beautiful of life gone by. It is full of notes and signs that seem to be found in the slightest moments with random encounters or people. They’re all reaching out and telling you something at every turn, entrusting you with it for some purpose of your own. And when I thought about why Mike had told me that ghost story, it dawned on me, that through the story, both he and Gracie wanted me to do a good job telling their story; and I certainly hope that I have.
So strange, but Savannah in a short time has become a new layer of my own skin. A part of its soul, now my own. Even if I didn’t have a moment with a ghost, in the very short time I visited, I feel like I got something better. Like I had a profound out-of-body and other worldly encounter with a mystical city and its most mysterious cemetery.