Every Sunday Morning just past 9 am, I'd arrive at the Longbranch Cemetary to mow the grounds This morning would be very different tho, I would find. For near a headstone which showed a child like face, I stopped and took a break. I had to rub away some of the moss and mold to read the words. Her name was Martha, and she died on May 17, 1900 of small pox, a fearful disease back then. I didn't stay much longer beyond saying to her; "I'm sure your momma and dad love and miss you very much".
I went about my job, and by afternoon the grounds looked good as new. It was then, that for reasons, I still don't understand, I looked back up the hill, to the headstone of the little girl. I was startled, as I saw a small child standing next to the headstone. She had beautiful blond curly hair, maybe 7 years old. She wore a dress that would have been from the 1900's, and she was reading the words on the headstone, then she turned to me. Her eyes looked so sad, that I felt tears running down my face. I was over come with a feeling of helplessness for her.
As she watched me take a few steps up the hill, towards her, she raised a tiny hand and shook her head no! In the time it took to blink a tear away, she touched the headstone, and she vanished. I walked slowly back up to the grave, and when I reached her resting place, I kneeled down and whispered. "Why have you stayed behind, my little one"? I sat down on the cool green grass next to her headstone. My heart was heavy as tears rolled down my cheeks. Such a small child to pass away I thought, she must be lost. She doesn't know where to go or what to do
since she died.
I wish, I wish, I wish I cried, I wish I could have held her, and tried to comfort her. To show her she wasn't all alone. She lingers in this cemetary, a small place of peace and comfort. Maybe thinking one day her mom and dad will come back for her. I feel so helpless, as helplessas she is, what can I do? Who would believe me if I told someone what I had just seen? As I began to stand, I touched her headstone, whispering softly, "I will return my little one tomorrow, with a surprise for you".
When I came back the next day, I wasn't alone. I had searched all day long in town, until I found it! A very old, but well cared for Raggedy Ann Doll. It was my hope that this might have been the type of doll she might have played with. I had seen alot of westerns where a girl or two had held one in her arms. I couldn't think of anything more she would like as I smiled and got out of my truck. In a few moments, I was once again, sitting next to her grave, as I cried once more. I cried with a joy in my heart tho, that she would like the doll I had brought.
When children are scared, a doll or stuffed animal can bring such comfort. Then I propped up her new friend against the headstone, and I felt a smile come across my face. I talked to Martha, as if she were sitting next to me. I talked about old childhood memories I held onto, and how much I missed my dad, even now. I told her I knew she felt sad, and all alone too. I told her that I had brought her a friend, that wanted to be her friend, a friend that would never leave her.
Someone she could talk to and play with, that it was a gift from me. I stood up and leaned down, and kissed her headstone softly and smiled, as I wiped my eyes. I had almost reached my truck, when suddenly, I heard the sound of a child giggling. I turned quickly around and saw Martha as she was hugging the doll I had left for her. I could have sworn there were tears in her eyes, as she smiled and waved at me, before she disappeared.
Several days later, I stopped at the small white country church with a pastor's house attached to it. I didn't attend Pastor John's services, I lived in a near-by town. I felt nervous, wanting to tell Pastor John of what I had seen in his cemetary. But I also was nervous, of what he might think? Would he even believe me? I was almost ready to start my truck and leave, when the front door of the church opened. He wasn't quite the pastor I expected to see, dressed in bib coveralls, with a paint can and brush in his hand. He sat down the can and brush, on the church steps, and smiled back at me. He gave a big wave for me to come to him. I got out, embarassed, for I wasn't ready to talk to him about Martha.
"My name is Pastor John, my friend, welcome to our church". I shook a firm hand, used to hard work, I could tell as he read my eyes all too well. "You look troubled this morning, come on in. "I've got a pitcher of cold ice tea, waiting to be enjoyed". He spoke with such a gentle, easy going tone as I followed behind him. His home was a simple one, basic, and I studied a large painting of Jesus on the wall, next to a window facing the cemetary. "You must be the landscaper my wife hired 2 weeks ago. I saw you mowing the grounds yesterday morning. I nodded, and told him my name was Raymond, and thanked him, as he handed me a tall glass of ice tea. Well, you're doing a fine job. I just can't get all the stuff done by myself".
"That's what I want to talk to you about Pastor, there's a problem". He looked at me with curiousity, but remained silent. "While I was working next door, well," then my eyes began to water. His eyes grew wide with concern, and I heard him as he spoke. "You must have seen her too, the little girl, you saw my little Martha"? Tears of relief rolled down my cheeks and his, as I nodded my head, unable to speak.
Pastor John had tears in his eyes, as he began to explain. "Martha was 6 years old when she died of small pox. Her mom and dad fled to escape the disease. Hundreds more moved away, and left their families, friends and relatives in the cemetary you care for Raymond. I've got many relatives buried there myself. Martha isn't kin to me, but she is a lost soul. I have tried to speak to her, I have prayed for her. Still,
she lingers in our Cemetary, and my spirit has suffered".
"I haven't told my wife about Martha, nor anyone else. I was beginning to think that I was the only one who could see her". When Pastor John had finished, he looked like a heavy burden had been lifted off his shoulder's. I told him of my encounter, and the doll I had brought to her. In response, he said; "God bless you Raymond". We were both silent for a moment, perhaps lost in thought. Then, I asked him a question: "How can we guide Martha home"?
As Pastor John walked over to the window, facing the cemetary, he paused. He looked deep in thought, searching for an answer. Then, he turned to me, his eyes a bit teary and spoke. "Martha, bless her spirit, has made you her friend. Something I have tried to do for a long time, and failed. Could you visit her now and then Raymond, maybe she will speak to you"? I nodded to him as I stood looking out the same window. "Children have always found a soft spot in my heart, Pastor
I looked into Pastor John's smile with a look of confusion. Pastor, I don't know what to say to Martha, or what passages to quote? He just smiled widely at me, placing his hand on my shoulder, as he spoke. "God's blessed you with a gift Raymond, with work left undone. Go to Martha, my friend, for God will show you he needs you to do". As I took in his words, I heard the distinctive sound. It was a VW bug, and his wife was pulling into the drive way. Pastor John beamed a smile, "my wife Amy is home, mum's the word"!
I looked at him, nodded, and laughed as we walked outside to meet her. When she saw him step out onto the church porch, I heard her say to Pastor John, "I thought you'd be finished painting"; as she laughed with playful eyes. "Hi Raymond. My you have made the Cemetary so nice, it's been needing care for a long time, and well; there's just so much to do for John. I hope John hasn't been preaching too much today, he loves the lord", she said with a warm smile.
"No mam, I answered, we've only been talking a short time, but I do need to go and get to my afternoon landscaping job", I told her. "But I'll be back tomorrow to do a little extra work". Pastor John's smile grew wide, as wide as mine, as I headed for my truck. His wife, looked first at her husband, then to me, wondering with that deer in the head lights look, what we might be up too.
I didn't sleep well that night, no, I tossed and turned. I kept thinking of that sad little girl. I was growing attached to her. What hope did I have of becoming close to her? Of talking to her? More important, would she or could she talk to me? What could I say to Martha that would ease her pain? Why hadn't she found the path, leading her back to Jesus's arms? So many questions came to mind, I just couldn't fall asleep. Pastor John left it up to me to guide her on her way. So I got out of bed, turned the light on, and wrote down my thoughts.
Like a candle's light glowing in the darkness of the night, suddenly I had an idea on how I might be able to help Martha. The morning's sunrise came all too soon for me. But I had an idea, a plan and hoped to see Martha again. Perhaps, she would allow me to see her, perhaps not. As I pulled out of my driveway, I stopped at the only jewelry shop in town. I browsed through gold chains of every size and price range which had a cross on them. I finally did settle on one I felt would fit her, one I hoped she'd like. I asked the jeweler if he did engraving, and he said yes.
I asked him what it would cost to engrave the name Martha on the back of the cross and when it might be ready? He told me, engraving with the purchase was free, and that it would be just a few minutes. When finished, I looked it over, and I smiled, it looked beautiful. On my way out of town, I stopped at McDonald's and had 2 sausage egg McMuffins without cheese, and a medium coke. I glanced down at the gold cross necklace, boxed, and wrapped in brightly colored balloon wrapping paper, and I felt so good. Fall was here, and the leaves on the road were gold, reddish brown and yellow.
When I arrived at the Longbranch cemetary, the sun shone brightly. As the leafs fell slowly to the ground, they were caught in the glint of sunlight, looking like angels decending from heaven. I sat next to Martha's headstone for hours, and I felt that she wasn't going to appear. Then, I heard the distinctive giggle of a small child, and I felt my own smile grow. The sound came from behind me and I turned my head around and saw Martha, smiling so bright a small, as she was waving her tiny hand hi!
My eyes shined and my smile grew wide when I saw Martha. She was hugging her doll tight and waving excitedly. It was if I were her dad, who she hadn't seen in a long time. She almost ran into my arms, but she stopped, and sat down near me. She was so close to me, I could have reached out and touched her. In every way, she looked just as if she were alive, an ordinary little girl. "I'm so glad you came to visit again", she giggled. She said with laughter as she looked down at her doll, "see, I told you he'd come back", and we both laughed. "I named her Becky, do you like the name"?
So, you gave her a name already, Martha, and her face was beaming with delight as she nodded her head! "Well, I think that's a fine name for a pretty doll", and she looked like the happiest girl I'd ever seen before! It was then, that her eyes spotted the small box, wrapped in pretty balloon wrapping, and then, she looked at me with curiousity. "Tell me, tell me, you brought me another present Raymond", and she could barely sit still when I said, "I sure did Martha". I couldn't hold back my tears of joy, as they rolled down my cheeks one after another. She looked at me with sad eyes, then to the present, and asked me, "why are you crying"?
As I wiped my eyes, and blinked, I told her; "it's hard to explain. But before we talk, little one, here, this is for you", and I placed the box on her lap. She eagerly pulled at the wrapping with small hands, and I laughed as colored paper was flying every where. Then she paused, as she held the long narrow box in her hands, hesitating. Then I said, "well, go ahead, open it up, peek inside", and she giggled as she pulled the top off. As the lid came off, tears filled her eyes as she whispered, "oh my, it's so pretty"! She held the necklace in her tiny hands and rubbed the cross, as I said, "go ahead, turn it over and see what is written"? With the curious innocence that makes kids a delight, she turned over the gold cross and held it close to her eyes as she spoke her name outloud!
In broken words, between tears, she tried to smile as she told me that she had been so lonely, for so long, and then, I brought her Becky, and now, this pretty necklace! Then suddenly, she climbed up into my my lap, so unexpectedly and hugged my neck tight, and said "thank you so much", and I cried too, telling her it was alright. And for that brief moment, I forgot that Martha was a spirit of a little girl.
It was the perfect time to say the perfect words, but I was an imperfect man, and I had no words to say to her. Instead of talking, I waited till Martha finished sharing a long missed hug. When She let go, I expected her to go back where she had sat, but she didn't. She stayed there in my lap, looking into my eyes, with such a warm innocent smile, that reminded me of Shirley Temple. Then, impatiently, she said, "well, aren't you gonna help me put it on"? I felt embarassed, having not asked her first, and I said, "of course Martha, turn around for me", and she did. In a moment the clasp was hooked, and I felt her pull gently on the cross as she looked down at it.
She hugged me one more time, then she left my arms and sat down next to Becky and picked her up. Martha was showing Becky her necklace, as I began to speak. But before I began, I looked over at the church, I saw Pastor John looking at me, but he looked very different. Then, Pastor John moved away from the window, and I turned my attention back to Martha. I was tongue tied, searching for the right words, but realized there were no perfect, easy words to say what I wanted to say. Martha, can I talk to you for a minute, it's real important"? She looked up from Becky, nodded, watching intently. As she fingered the cross, I began to speak.
You know why your momma and dad went away don't you Becky"? Gone was the sparkle in Martha's deep blue eyes. All she did was nod at first. "Everyone was getting sick, and I was very sick, I remember". Everyone was leaving town, and I didn't want them to go away. I didn't want my dad and mom to leave me, and her voice, trembled, and she broke into tears. My heart was breaking as she crawled back into my arms, and I rocked her. "I have been waiting for them to come back and take me with them, she said, and I felt warm tears soak my shirt as her head rest on my shoulder. When she quieted down, it was my turn to speak.
I'm glad you remember when you were very sick Martha, it was a time when many were sick. Many of them didn't get better, they died and were buried here. I waited a moment to let those words sink into Martha's thoughts. "Martha", I said, as my tears fell upon her, "the reason mom and dad haven't come back to take you with them, is because, because you couldn't get better, you died"! Then, I heard her softly say sadly, "I know", was all she said as she hugged me tighter. Neither of us spoke for a few minutes, there were no words she or I could find.
Then she looked up into my eyes and her expression was so heart wrenching, a plea to help her, and I didn't know anything I could do for her. I whispered, "Martha, why have you stayed behind"? Didn't you see an angel, a light, a stairway someone to show you the way to heaven". She just shook her head no. Can you help me Raymond? "Can you help me go to heaven"? All I couldsay to her was, "I'm so sorry hun, I don't know what to do". It was then, that I heard Pastor John's gentle voice, and we both looked up and saw him. There was a glow all around him, and I knew now what happened at the window. He had a heart attack, and had died.
"It's okay Martha, come take my hand, I know the way to heaven". There were tears in our eyes as she looked at Pastor John, then to me as she spoke. "I will miss you Raymond, very very much". As I cried, I told her I would miss her with all my heart. She climbed down, picked up Becky with one hand and took Pastor John's hand with her other hand. I waved to both of them, as they said good-bye, for the stairway to heaven had opened above them.
2002 Raymond Brown