It may have been the trees, soaring and spreading and stretching up into the sky and down into the earth. It may have been the words, carved into stone in letters thick and straight, their assertion of permanence both ironic and inspiring. It may have been the silence or the stillness or the statuary that captivated me, that made the cemetery at Christ Church on St. Simons one of my favorite places. I don’t remember and I can’t say that I ever knew for certain, but on that day the thing that grabbed me and held me was the camellias.
On that day, five days after Christmas, with the tree still up and a handful of presents still to be delivered, I had driven the back roads — Sandhill to Claxton to Glennville to Ludowici to Townsend to Darien to St. Simons — to catch my breath and refocus my gaze. And I’d brought a friend along, someone who’d heard me talk about this spit of land that holds so much of me and my heart and wanted firsthand knowledge. We had gone in search of Tree Spirits. We had breathed in salt air and strolled past sand dunes and tidal pools from the Coast Guard Station to Gould’s Inlet and back to Massengale Park. And now we had come to Christ Church.
On a brick path worn smooth by 200 years of footsteps, we circled the church to enter the cemetery. No gates or fences. No separation of the dead from the living. We wandered slowly among the graves — old, extremely old and new, elaborate and humble. I pointed out to my friend a broken column, monument to a life cut short, the one piece of funerary art I knew.
I made the comment that wandering through graveyards had been a regular pastime in my childhood, something that the aunts and cousins always did on Thanksgiving afternoon while the men played pitch penny in the backyard or drove out to somebody’s pond to throw a line. My friend didn’t say anything, but the expression I got in response made me think that people in Ohio didn’t do that kind of thing.
At the corner of one plot, there was a large camellia bush. It had grown tall, like a tree, and its branches dangled over the path. The pink flowers and dark green leaves stood out against the gray day, the gray stones. My friend pointed and said, “Rose?”
not realizing right away how odd it must be for someone from Ohio to see such a profusion of blooms in the dead of winter, not realizing right away, even, how odd it was for me to respond so quickly. I am not known for my horticultural expertise.
I plucked one blossom from the bush and held it in my upturned palm. Chamois soft and the color of a teenager’s first crush blush, petals falling away from the center like the skirt of a ballgown. Both shy and brave, tender and strong. Alive and vibrant and animated in this place that bears witness to death.
The sign at the gate read “Open until sunset” and the sun had already fallen behind the trees that separated the church from the Frederica River and the marsh. It was time to go. I walked toward the car with my hand up like Mr. Carson in “Downton Abbey,” cradling the camellia and thoughts I had not yet begun to process.
There was just enough light to walk to the Wesley Cross before heading back to the village for dinner before driving home, this time the back roads in reverse -– Saint Simons to Darien to Townsend to Ludowici to Glennville to Claxton to Sandhill. The car was dark and the talk serious. The camellia lay in the cupholder between us.
It is cold outside tonight. Jaw-locking, teeth-clinching, head-bowing cold. The forecast is for temperatures as low as 19 degrees. I am worried for the camellias. All over town they have been bursting forth and showing off. Pink and red and coral. Stripes and solids. Ruffles and flounces. In the morning, they will be stiff and brittle and dead. I am imagining the ones at Christ Church Cemetery falling from their stems to the brick paths below.
Everything dies. In winter it is just more difficult to deny. This winter I am thinking that before my turn comes I want to be like the camellias, blooming with a flagrancy that would embarrass my younger self, blooming in places flush with darkness and death, blooming to bear witness to all I have been, all I have known, all I have loved.