I read somewhere that an inspiration for New York City’s famous Central Park was Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. New York, it seems, had grown up without parks, and cemeteries provided the chief open spaces, the main refuges for quiet walks away from the traffic and bustle of the city. Green-Wood was noted for the beauty of its grounds and its statuary, and many people drew pleasure from walking among the graves.
I suppose this sounds odd to some, but it struck a chord with me because in my childhood Lawnridge Cemetery loomed large as a destination for our sometimes wide-ranging expeditions about town. It was a quiet place, a fascinating place, a playground in which we mingled with some fraction of the history of Rochelle and created myths about the stones and the people whose lives they mark.
In the 1950s Rochelle was still growing westward from Ninth Street, where we lived, toward the main processing plants operated by California Packing Corporation (later known as Del Monte). Miscellaneous vacant lots amidst the western neighborhoods were rapidly filling with new houses, and an entire new neighborhood was being created from a piece of corn field west of Tilton School. A house under construction, of course, automatically attracts small boys and girls, who happily climb down into the open pit that is to become a basement and up into the studs and plywood flooring of the house itself as it grows upward, exploring this new environment in the evenings after the carpenters have gone home. I suppose we had all been told to stay away, but there were no fences and our curiosity was great. I doubt, though, that we ever learned anything we couldn’t have learned simply by digging holes in our own yards. Ah, but those basement holes were so much deeper than we could dig; amazing pipes, nuts, and bolts lay around, waiting to be examined by childish hands and eyes; and there were challenges in getting down, and even greater challenges in getting out.
Lawnridge Cemetery lay at the western edge of all this, beyond the last row of houses and partly bounded on the north by a field which later became known as Cooper Park. It was not a long walk, or perhaps as frequently a run, from my house to Lawnridge. I don’t know that it was always an intended destination, but beyond it to the west lay corn fields, which were not as pleasant or as out of the ordinary, so our path would turn and we would be in the cemetery. Corn fields, pea fields, and asparagus fields circled the town, houses and schools were everywhere in town, but the cemetery was a place of a different order.
Please note that we intended no disrespect. We toppled no stones, damaged no plants. We walked carefully among the graves, treating them nearly as living people. But we had come to read the names and dates, examine the stones, and to weave all into stories, which the older children told the younger children, about people we never knew.
Some of the stories might have been ghost stories, but I think most were not. They were about the people when they were alive and some might well have been true, at least to some extent — many of the stones marked the graves of relatives of my friends who may have told true stories about their kin. All this was a very long time ago, and I no longer remember any of the stories, no longer know where each of the most interesting stones stands. But parts of one story have stuck with me all these years, possibly because it was such a sad story. Near the northeast side of the cemetery was a single, small cauldron or pot hidden in a thorny bush. It was said, by whom I don’t remember based on what source I probably never knew, to mark the grave of a Gypsy child who had died in Rochelle as the family passed through town on their endless migration. I don’t know what made us, or at least me, think that this story was likely. Perhaps it was the fact that unlike the other graves, which lay neatly mowed, well-groomed, and decorated with flowers, this grave seemed forgotten by all but us, and it seemed at least as mysterious as the monument to the horse January that stood at the edge of Memorial Park. For whatever reason during my childhood a visit to Lawnridge always meant a visit to the Gypsy child’s grave.
In later years my visits to Lawnridge ceased to be spontaneous, became entwined with Memorial Day ceremonies, and the stories we told each other vanished from my memory, almost as if they had never been. Perhaps the stories belong to other children now. I hope so.