This is Judson, I told her, the most special, beautiful place. This is where Mama and Papa were married. This is where we couldn’t wait to tell everyone that you were on the way. This will always be one of your spiritual homes.
But before I tell you about how we finally got to take Junia to our church today, let me talk about Green-Wood Cemetery.
It turns out that, once babies are a few months old, a lot of them don’t just pass out anywhere, anytime anymore. They also go through a long spell of brain development that causes, in many babies, a strong sense of FOMO. Combine these two factors and it’s a great recipe for a nap strike—never mind that the baby who doesn’t nap is just as unhappy as her guilt-ridden, exhausted parents (or, at least in this case, her mother—her father maintains his usual Zenlike calm). She has not yet connected her cranky, pouty downhill slide that starts as early as nine a.m. with her refusal to take anywhere near her supposedly age-appropriate number and duration of naps. And after two failed (i.e. the baby finds it more restful to sob than to sleep) naps, her mother gives up on the idea of a formal nap on a safe sleep surface in a cool, dark, quiet room with a white noise machine running, preceded by gentle rocking and a lullabye and a diaper change and a feeding, all of which was initiated at the very first sign of a yawn or pinkened eyebrows (THANKS, EVERY BABY SLEEP “EXPERT” EVER), and packs the baby in the stroller and heads for the cemetery. Yes, the cemetery. Because there are no traffic lights in the cemetery, and one can walk and walk and walk. For up to four miles or so without even running out of cemetery.
Walking a baby through a cemetery for untold hours does give one plenty of time to think, once the unhappy baby has decided that being strapped into a stroller under the blazing late summer sun is the perfect setting for a restful nap. I never identified as a goth or anything, but I do often visit historic cemeteries when I travel—St. Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans, Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, Glendalough Cemetery in Ireland. Green-Wood is only a few blocks from where we live, and a beautifully maintained National Historic Site, full of graves dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. And when I push the baby in the stroller through the cemetery, I read a lot of gravestones, and I think, and I take pictures. Often I look for the extremes—the graves of infants and young children, the graves of nonagenarians, the graves of dogs and horses—but just as often I find myself drawn to the unadorned but distinctive military headstones that often lie in the midst of much more ornate memorials.
William Rockwell’s (1800-1867) stone identifies him as an Army surgeon in the Civil War. He served two tours of duty in the Civil War after enlisting at the age of sixty-two. Sixty-two is a rather advanced age for a surgeon even in 2020. I think about William Rockwell a lot. What could have driven a man who may well have been retired, who probably should have been enjoying what would turn out to be his last decade on Earth, to enlist (twice!) in the Army, during which time he surely spent his days amputating limbs and draining abscesses and comforting the dying?
Sometimes I tell Junia about the stones that I notice. Not that she’s listening. But it never hurts to be remembered, even if by a stranger. There are perhaps thousands of William Rockwells in Green-Wood Cemetery, ordinary people who made small but extraordinary choices for mercy, for righteousness, for love. For as scary as the word into which she was born can be, there are oases of honor and peace. I want her to know that, too.
I hadn’t been there since March. This weekend, the third in September, is usually the Judson Weekend, our annual retreat in the Connecticut wilds. In this strange, bitter pandemic year, the long walks through the woods and dips in the lake, the coffees and cocktails on the steps of the Lodge, the singalongs and s’mores roasts and waterslide shenanigans were replaced mostly by a series of Zoom events—but also a small picnic in Prospect Park, and, even better, an outdoor meet-and-greet on a closed stretch of Thompson Street beside the church and a chance to be in the Meeting Room for small-group walking meditation.
We went, packing up the baby and picking up Aunt Christine along the way. When we entered Thompson Street, pushing the same stroller I’ve pushed across so many miles of cemetery, I was overjoyed to see the familiar faces: Micah rising above the barrier across from the park; Andy sporting a Yankees mask to match his t-shirt; Ruby relishing the congratulations on his ravishing performance in the previous evening’s Zoom cabaret. And there in the stroller was the next generation, our little girl, come home for the first time. Everyone wanted to see her, to stroke the soles of her feet in their tiny pink socks that kept falling off, to marvel that she had come out the other side from the last time they saw her when I was twenty-nine weeks pregnant.
Micah asked us if we wanted to be part of a small group going up to the Meeting Room. We said yes.
The space was dark, lit only by black light. We examined the artifacts that others left to symbolize their presence on the communion table for future online services; we brought a photograph of the three of us and a small stuffed alpaca. We asked Martha-Emily to take a picture of us with the statue of Marsha P. Johnson, she who also chose mercy and righteousness and love. We walked, if not meditated, through the space, beneath the LaFarge windows and down the same path I walked to marry Dakota. And I told my daughter: This is Judson, the most special, beautiful place. This is where Mama and Papa were married. This is where we couldn’t wait to tell everyone that you were on the way. This will always be one of your spiritual homes.
Outside again, five of us (and the baby in the stroller) headed for coffee at Third Rail on Sullivan, like we did so many times after choir practice. We walked among the friends and strangers along Thompson and West Third, lingered outside the coffee shop, mourned the closure of the Korean bodega and the dumpling restaurant. We had lost some of our number and some of our places. But we had not lost our way.
I walk my baby alongside any number of saints. I’m fortunate to be able to tell her about them, and not just to reflect the ones in the LaFarge windows from the pages of the Bible—but to encourage her to heal like William Rockwell and fight like Marsha P. Johnson; to lead like Micah, to teach like Andy, to delight like Ruby. In this strange, bitter pandemic year, the saints are still alive among us and resting in and beyond their monuments, even their Meeting Rooms. We only have to go out walking with them.