Tag Archives: cemetery

That’s Noody

This is a repost of a piece from a few years ago. I don’t know what it is that causes someone to be on your mind several times throughout several days, but she’s been on mine quite a bit lately. I wanted her to be on yours too.

That’s Noody

Signaling us to quiet down, my ninth grade English teacher rapped a pencil against the top of her desk. She then gave us our next assignment. We were to write a paper about someone we respected. Someone influential to our thinking and whose character we admired. The paper was due the next week and should be three pages long.

She rapped the pencil several more times to silence the groans.

We had the rest of class time to discuss the assignment and choose who we would write about. After deciding, we were to write our choices on the blackboard. Since the person could be anyone, from any point in time, many chose religious, historical, or political figures. After the last student went to the blackboard, the teacher read all of the choices aloud.

She went slowly down the list reading off names of famous figures like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Neil Armstrong. She paused when she got to my chalk-written choice.

“Margaret Nelson Perkins Lankey?” she frowned and turned to the class, puzzled.

I raised my hand. “That’s Noody.” I said. “She’s my aunt.”

I was never sure why we called her Noody. It didn’t matter. I come from a large family and almost everyone had a nickname. That’s how it was done. Extended family lived all around me but I was lucky having Noody right next door. She and my uncle were as much a part of everyday life as my parents and sisters.

Noody had an old picnic table under her tree where she did everything from shelling butter beans to cleaning fish to cutting watermelon. When I saw her sitting there I’d walk over to visit. If she said “Let’s go sit in the swing.” I knew I was in for a treat. I loved hearing old family stories and she loved telling them. She taught me to remember where I came from while never forgetting where I wanted to go.   

She could drive a pickup, haul firewood, or cut grass all while holding a handful of cookies to snack on. Once, using a hoe, Noody cornered a snake near her shed. Feeling she was perfectly lined up for a quick decapitation, she raised the hoe over her head and came down full force. She missed, leaving a hole in the ground so deep it took a shovel-full of dirt to fill it. She giggled. Do your best and if it doesn’t go as you hoped, laugh it off.

Many snowy winters we cousins took sleds to a nearby hill and Noody would come along for the fun. She took us roller skating on occasion, showing us up by strapping on skates and heading into the rink like a pro. At the family place on the Chesapeake Bay, while other adults sat in the shade, Noody joined us kids in the water. She taught me how to float on my back, and that working hard may be necessary, but playing hard is just as important.

I once stayed with out of town relatives for some summer fun. When I returned home I met Noody in the swing to tell her about it. She asked if I sent them a “bread and butter note”. I told her no but didn’t tell her I had no idea what one was. She went inside and brought back some of her stationery. There at the picnic table she helped me write a proper thank you note. She taught me that and many other lessons over the years.

Not just a mentor, she was also an ally. Before my thirteenth birthday I saw an ad in a magazine for a tiny incubator and six quail eggs. Mama, not thrilled to add to the animals I already had, gave an instant “No”. Logically, I went to see Noody. I told her I wanted to try hatching eggs. Noody read the ad, put her hand on her hip and said, “Run bring me my checkbook.” With help from Noody, my uncle built an enclosure and the quail I hatched were part of my life for the next few years. She always told me if you want something bad enough, you can find a way.  

Many of my relatives are buried at the church near home. The same church most of my extended family attended, and many still do. When my kids were younger I took them for a walk around the cemetery there. As they read a name from each of the family tombstones I would say, “That’s your great grandfather.” or “That’s your great grandmother.” or “That’s your great uncle.” From a spot a little further down than some of the older tombstones, my daughter read a name.

“Margaret Nelson Perkins Lankey?” she called out.

“That’s Noody.” I said.

When I heard her name I remembered the years of good times with my fine aunt. I also remembered what my ninth grade teacher wrote in the upper right hand corner of my paper.

“Please show this writing to Noody.” it said.

I still wish I had.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Hi Ben

During my walk through the cemetery this afternoon I noticed rabbits tucked here and there, watched countless squirrels skitter across gravestones, and heard two blue jays bicker with a crow as it picked something from an old paper bag. Acres in size, this cemetery is full of wildlife from backyard birds to a family of foxes living in a back corner where brush is piled. Once I walk into the cemetery all traffic noises are gone, no sirens blare, and I forget I’m only four miles from downtown D.C. Watching a pair of cardinals in the shrubs by the gate, I sat down at a bench beside one of the gravestones.

I knew from other walks in the cemetery that if I sat on this bench long enough, the family of chipmunks living under the granite base of the tombstone next to it would soon get the nerve to come out. I’m not sure how many live below since there is a constant flow out of the hole, in the hole, back out, two of them now, no wait three, all gone, no here they come again. Once I had four in sight as they scrambled over each other like kittens, paused, then dashed back under the granite, tails in the air. All of these animals today reminded me of the many, many times as a kid that we took in abandoned animals brought to us by well-meaning people.

Our house was always full of animals. Not just the cats and dogs we had, but baby birds, baby rabbits, and even a lizard with three legs someone brought in case we could help it. I currently live in a third floor condo so a pet of any kind is almost out of the question, but something as simple as an afternoon watching rabbits, foxes, and chipmunks can sometimes fill the void.

As a chipmunk bounded from the hole and headed towards a crepe myrtle, a plump robin landed beside me on the back of the bench. I instantly thought of Ben, the name Mama gave to a baby robin someone brought to our house years ago. Mama was usually pretty exasperated by the number of animals I kept, but for some reason she took over caring for Ben the instant he showed up in the bottom of a shoe box. He was just a chunky, fuzzy blob the day he arrived, but in no time Mama had him fat and feathered.

We had a huge screened porch where Mama kept Ben, so he was able to fly as he grew. Ben was satisfied to stay on the screened porch and land on the arms of neighbors who came to visit. People would always ask Mama, “Doesn’t he go to the bathroom on you?”

“Ben would never do that.” Mama always said.

As weeks passed and summer went by, Ben became an adult and began acting interested in other robins in the yard. Mama worried about it, but not wanting to hold him back, she decided she would let him go out to see what he would do.

He flew away.

In an hour he was back. Mama tapped on a can, something she’d done each time she’d fed him, and he flew back to the screened porch. He spent the night there but the next day the pattern repeated: Free to fly in the yard all day, sit on the gutter over the back door which was now favorite spot, then back to the screened porch at night. After a few days of this, Ben no longer returned to the screened porch at night but still spent a lot of time on the gutter over the back door.

“He’s going to sit up there and go to the bathroom on you.” Daddy would say to Mama as he laughed.

“Ben would never do that.” she maintained.

Mama would tap on the can, Ben would fly from the gutter to the porch railing to be fed, then off to the yard somewhere to socialize with his own kind. This new pattern continued for a few more days then we stopped seeing Ben waiting on the gutter. As weeks went by we saw the occasional robin on the gutter, or one in the yard that didn’t seem particularly afraid, but robins never really do. As fall and then winter came the robins disappeared and we wondered if Ben had adjusted well enough to leave with them. We hoped he could survive.

We thought about Ben often during the winter.  As spring came, the more robins that showed up the more we talked about him. One late spring morning I went outside to see a robin on the gutter above the back door. It didn’t fly away. I called Mama who hurried and started talking to the bird. It cocked its head at her but made no effort to move. She stepped inside, grabbed a can from the recycling bin, and came back. As she tapped the can the robin cocked its head again. When Mama tapped a second time, the robin flew down from the gutter to sit on the railing.

“Hi Ben.” Mama said. The robin sat still as she talked. “Hi Ben.” she said again. The robin cocked its head once more and actually hopped along the railing towards Mama. It sat still, staring at her. Then, in a flutter of wings it flew away over the pine trees and was gone. If it was Ben, we never saw him again that we know of. Mama still talks about Ben to this day.

As I sat on that bench in the cemetery remembering Ben and the many, many animals we took care of for short periods of time, I felt a little wistful. There’s a feeling we animal lovers get from having them around, the interaction, the bonding, and the comedy they can provide. There was a feeling of melancholy that came over me remembering Mama’s success with Ben and how I really do think that was him who came back for a visit the next spring.

Feeling full of nostalgia, I turned to the plump robin still sitting on the bench beside me.

“Hi Ben.” I said.

The robin cocked its head at me and just before flying off, it unceremoniously went to the bathroom down the back of the bench.

Ben would never have done that.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Weeding Baby Wendell

I walk nearly every evening, rain or shine. Although the area where I live has sidewalks, ball fields, and open spaces where most people do their walking, I prefer to walk in the cemetery across the street. It’s nearly forty acres of rolling land full of mature trees and all manner of wildlife. It’s filled too, with many, many graves. Towards a back corner, just a few feet from a rusted section of chain link fence choked by honeysuckle, is baby Wendell’s grave.

On my daily walks I began to stop now and then to upright a vase, pull a weed, or pick up trash. I don’t always take the same route so I never focused on any grave in particular, just did what little thing needed to be done if I noticed, and kept walking. It was obvious when family or friends would tidy up around a grave and it became clear that some graves never got attention other than the general maintenance by the owners. No one ever visited baby Wendell. The little granite urn on his tombstone would fill with old leaves, grass clippings, and spider webs. The day I noticed wiregrass smothering his tiny tombstone, I decided to make baby Wendell a routine stop.

My daily walks also meant that the many visitors who came regularly on Sunday afternoons or holidays would see me at one place or another on the grounds. I’d often be mistaken for an employee as they stopped to ask, for instance, where section L was, which gate exits where, or the location of the main office.

One Sunday evening two elderly women, who I later realized had seen me there many times, drove up as I was bent over picking a dead wasp out of baby Wendell’s urn. Not wanting them to think I was up to no good, I stood and walked towards them to say hello. They were all smiles and I was surprised as they began to thank me.

“We see you out here real often. How long have you worked here?” the first woman asked as she adjusted the bouquet of artificial flowers she held in her hand.

The second woman added “Yes, and after that last storm you were the first one we saw out here picking up sticks. It’s just so good that you work here.”

I watched the first woman struggle with her bouquet and said “Oh no Ma’am. I don’t work here, I just walk here.”

As it turned out, they were sisters who had come to put flowers on their brother’s grave. His is located just a few sites over from baby Wendell, between a dogwood tree and a very old azalea.

“But you’re here just about every time we come by.” the first woman said, still fighting to get a grip on the bouquet in her hand, and looking puzzled that I didn’t work there.

“And looks to me like every time we’ve seen you, you’ve been working.” the sister added again.

I explained to them how I might randomly pick up a stick now and then, or put some wind blown trash back in the can, but that they only saw me so often because I had one day noticed the wiregrass that nearly covered the tiny tombstone near their brother’s.

“I’m just weeding baby Wendell.” I said.

“Why? All that and you don’t work here?” the first woman asked as she lost her grip on part of the bouquet.

I’d never given it that much thought. I walk there nearly every day and it was just part of my walk to upright a geranium now and then. I had occasionally remembered what Nannie, my grandmother, used to tell us kids back home. “If you see a need, fill it, and don’t worry about who gets the credit.” she would say.

“Well we can’t thank you enough for all we’ve seen you do.” the first woman said as a tiny piece of her bouquet fell to the ground.

“Oh it’s just wonderful that you would help for no reason.” the sister added.

They both seemed about to tear up as they walked away. I never thought about needing or getting credit for any of the random things I only sporadically did as I walked, but these two women had noticed and they had thanked me. Those tiny efforts took so little on my part, but to them they meant a lot. They noticed and they appreciated.

I suppose we all do the random nice things that we do because we know it’s right, and it’s kind. Baby Wendell could never thank me, and none of us imagine we’ll ever be thanked for the tiny things we do, and we may not believe anyone even notices. But out there for each of us is the equivalent of those two old ladies, noticing and appreciating.

I reached down and picked up the tiny piece of bouquet the woman had dropped as she thanked me. I finished weeding baby Wendell and put those flowers in his little urn.

“No need to thank me baby Wendell. You’re welcome.” I said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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