Visitor or Resident?

Pearl Watley Mitchell

© Copyright 2005 by Pearl Watley Mitchell

Cemetary gates and tombstones.

No one knew his name, but many grieving mourners had seen him, his smiling compassion, straightening the flowers on graves and picking up a piece of litter here and there. He greeted visitors at monuments with a tip of his baseball cap and was mostly on the move all the time. A couple of people had asked him if he had the time, but he answered that he had no watch. He seemed to be a permanent resident of the cemetery.

Once in a while, he could be seen sitting on a park bench near the small pond in the shade reading the newspaper. If he were eating anything, it would always be a slice of pizza or bread sticks and he would be drinking bottled water. Often, he would gently toss a few pieces of crust to the ducks who waddled around the edge of the water, sometimes wandering near him as if they were saying hello to an old friend.

Those who had seen him often began to wonder if he might be homeless but they ruled that out since he was well-dressed and clean. Usually wearing a checked or striped shirt and khaki pants, he was clean-cut and trim, appearing to be fairly physically fit. Dark socks and leather loafers accented his attire. When he did wear a coat, it was a khaki sport jacket with an unfamiliar icon on the left breast. He could have been in his mid-to-late fifties, the only sign of his age being a touch of gray temples around a wavy brown hairline.

Mourners and visitors to the cemetery accepted his presence with an unquestioning resignation. It seemed as if he naturally belonged there, giving the aura of a residential caretaker, going about and interacting so easily with those who came to say goodbye to loved ones. Reading between the lines, one could get the idea that mourners and visitors left with a sense of peace, feeling all right about leaving loved ones there under his care and concern.

Children who visited the cemetery often came in with a touch of nervousness, but left completely at ease. The man would be seen speaking with them and the children would be giving him full attention. They would stand in awe with their hands clasped behind their back, looking, gazing intently up into the man’s face. He would be stooped slightly with his knees crouched just a little as if to reach into the children’s space, but not getting close enough to breech their privacy. The children seemed to be almost in a trance, but they were taking in every word and every facial expression. When they left, holding the hands of parents, they would wave a wistful goodbye to the man, who gave them a gentle wave in return.

The few people who had an in-depth conversation with him were surprised at his wide range of knowledge and expertise. He could talk classical music and art, history, science, culture, religion, technology, construction, or business – any subject or any area where a person’s life or interest was centered.

The identity of this man continued to be of interest to all those who encountered his presence. No person could be found who spoke negatively of him, and none who questioned his motives. Everyone who interacted with him seemed to leave his presence with a sense of peace that could not be explained, but was very welcome.

Those workers who opened the graves, the grounds maintenance guys, and those who installed markers – they all seemed familiar with him. Frequent visitors had long conversations with him but when asked later, they couldn’t really tell you the subject or topic about which they had conversed. They were just comfortable with casual conversation and many spoke to him about their problems.

Directly across the road from the cemetery gate set a little cottage. It was thought by many people that the man lived there, but the house showed little sign of habitation. There were curtains on the windows but no car was parked there, no outside furniture or lights, no plants or flowers, just a little cottage that brings to mind the one that might have belonged to the dwarfs in Snow White.

One object did hang outside the house. It was a large unique wind chime, composed of six big, detailed, ornate angels. The chime seemed to be brass and it never became dull. It shone brilliantly and the sun bouncing off the metal created flashes of light that appeared extra-terrestrial. The five angels at the top of the chime appeared to be bowed in praise and humility. The larger angel who hung below held a large musical instrument, maybe a trumpet, and was blowing it with much enthusiasm.

One warm summer day, a family of frequent visitors who were bringing flowers, noticed the absence of the man. Maybe he was taking a break in the shade or even taking a nap on the bench. The children dashed here and there, looking for him on the benches and in the shades, next to the pond, and up on the hill. He was nowhere to be found. The children were extremely sad and uncomfortable. They wanted to leave. Suddenly the cemetery seemed to be a cold and lonely place both to the adults and to the children.

The adults finished placing the flowers and were about to leave when they noticed that the children were gathered around a lady gazing intently into her face as she leaned forward and spoke with the children. The children’s hands were clasped behind them in the same manner they would always be when the man was there.

The adults were curious as they walked over toward the lady. They noticed that she had a maternal look, maybe in her late forties. She was slim and dressed neatly in a casual, lacy, house dress. Her hair was shoulder length, salt-and-pepper colored, wavy and well-groomed. She wore casual brown pumps with no pantyhose and her dress hung at mid-calf. What appeared to be a mother’s ring was on her finger with five stones for maybe five children, and a wedding ring was on one finger, but noticeably she was not wearing a watch. The only ornate part of her attire was a pair of earring that dangled with an angel on the end of each one.

The father mentioned to her that they were looking for a man who usually was there and had been there for several months now. He inquired whether she knew him or not. “Oh, yes”, she said. “That’s Russell. He finished his internship and he’s gone to the next level to do his work with Saint Peter”. The lady continued to talk to the children while the adults went to their knees on God’s lush, green grass.

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