What the Stones Don’t Tell Us | Guest Post by Peter McLaughlin
This guest piece about love and loss has special resonance for me. Peter McLaughlin was a fine journalist and a good friend. Although there was almost a 20-year age difference between us, we were born on the same day and bonded immediately over a shared love of great writing, discussions that pinged from one idea to the next with little connection between the two, and a healthy dose of smart-assery and off-color humor. His partner, Kate, was one of the loveliest, liveliest, and strongest-willed spirits I’ve ever met, and Peter was entirely dedicated to her. After she lost her battle with cancer in 2015, Peter was inconsolable. He stopped writing, and, for a time, even seemed to stop living.
Last spring, Peter contacted me about a story he’d begun writing. He was too close to it, and the cancer meds he’d been taking had left him with “chemo brain,” which made it difficult for him to concentrate. He was stuck, and asked for my help as an editor. We worked on his story together, over a period of about five months, going through multiple drafts and many discussions of direction and intention. We didn’t always agree, and he wasn’t always thrilled with the idea of going back to do more rewrites, but by the next draft, he had a renewed energy, even better ideas, and some beautiful turns of phrase.
The last draft he sent me, the one he was happiest and most at peace with, was dated one day before he suffered a massive stroke. Peter died about two months later. This is his final story.
What the Stones Don’t Tell Us
By Peter McLaughlin
I dug a four-foot-deep hole in the rocky soil of the Taconic Mountains and put Kate’s gravestone in it. First I took a shovel and dug a couple of feet down. Then I lay on my stomach and reached in the hole with a trowel as far as my arm would go. With my face pressed hard against the ground, my neck bare to the hot sun, and my arm deep in the gritty soil, I scooped out another two feet.
A neighbor helped me slide the gravestone out of the back of my SUV—250 pounds of brilliant white marble—and we lowered it into the hole. I poured gravel around the four sides and then packed soil around the stone, all the time keeping it straight with a carpenter’s level.
In the slanting rays of the late-afternoon sun, the crevices caught the shadows and the inscription jumped right out as clear and sharp as a newly minted penny: Kathryn Knights, 1947–2015. When I stepped back to see if it was plumb and saw Katie’s new stone surrounded by twelve bigger stones from as long ago as 200 years, the enormity of what I was doing filled me with a profound and crippling sorrow. I sat on my heels in the grass and watched the evening shadows darken the cemetery. My Kate was gone.
The little cemetery where I put the stone over Kate’s ashes stands like an island in the middle of a farm field, where horses and tractors have worked around it for nearly two centuries. The oldest stones that flank Kate’s are darkly stained and worn thin by the weather. They’re all slightly crooked and the inscriptions—carved in rock so the deceased would never be forgotten—are barely legible. These old stones, distinctly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century vintage, stand over the remains of more than five generations of men and women who were born on this little plot of land, worked the farm their entire lives, and died here. Then came Kate— the little girl who played in the meadows and woods of Hell Hollow when her grandmother owned the property.
During those carefree summer days, Kate fell in love with the land at the end of the Hollow. After she grew up and inherited it, she made it her mission to keep it forever natural and unspoiled. Along the way she turned down developers who offered big money to build rows of condos that would march across the meadow and along the creek, loggers who wanted to log the land to death, and speculators who had a variety of crackpot ideas. One man wanted to set aside the land as a training ground for Iditarod racing dogs, while another proposed a private fox hunting club, with horses and hounds galloping across Kate’s land. If anyone came up the dirt road with a fistful of money, Kate sent them packing.
Kate had a level gaze that told people to back off if they pushed her too hard. She was sweet but tough, rebellious, independent, stubborn, and feisty. She went her own way in matters large and small. In every map, phone book, and post office document, the road we live on is called Hill Hollow. But Kate always called it Hell Hollow; that’s what it was called more than a century ago, and Kate respected what the original settlers had called it. She also never spelled Petersburgh with an h on the end. Just because the townspeople voted to change it in 1991, that didn’t mean she had to go along them.
It was this free spirit that made her so endearing to me and such a vigorous protector of the land. She had her property posted, and if anyone crossed her borders, she flew out the door, even in pajamas and a robe, and chased the intruders. She once stared down the big electric-company crews who showed up to cut down trees that ran near their power lines. Every one of those trees was sacred to Kate, and with jaw set, she took on the company’s head forester. The trucks turned around and drove away.
To Kate, owning the land also made her protector of all the animals on the property—deer, bears, turkeys, cats, and more—and she wouldn’t tolerate any of them being harmed, even though they ate the blossoms off her roses, nibbled away at the yew trees, and ripped down the bird feeders. She was fearless in chasing off hunters, who sometimes got nasty. One said, “Listen, lady. I know where you live, but you don’t know where I live.” To this threat Kate gave the universal hand gesture of defiance.
The land and the house were sanctuaries where she could indulge in the solitary things she loved to do: tending her roses, and making exquisite Victorian boxes and cards with ribbons from Paris, lace from old wedding gowns, vintage fabrics, and other treasures from antique auctions. Her front porch, decorated with white wicker furniture and hanging plants, was her favorite “room.” She spent hours there by herself, listening to jazz or the blues, reading, listening to Yankee games on the radio, or just watching the hummingbirds dash from feeder to feeder.
Today if you stand at the cemetery in summer and look west over the top of the stones, you see nothing but green valley, forests, and a blue-gray mountain range in the distance. Nothing you see is manmade or artificial. The only exception is a small plank house, tucked into a cluster of high pines, that was built by the Main family when they first settled here in 1791. The dark wood structure is barely visible. Nature has embraced it and made it part of the landscape. This small treasure of a house—along with the 112 spectacular acres that Kate’s grandmother bought in 1951 for $6,500—was built while George Washington was still alive.
During the 25 years Kate and I lived together at the very end of Hell Hollow, where the dead-end dirt road disappears into the woods, we never talked about being buried in the cemetery just 300 yards up the hill from house. We didn’t need to. It was tacitly understood. Kate, a natural gardener, probably relished the idea of digging holes in the ground and planting the stones. I liked that we didn’t have to pick a gravestone from a commercial monument lot, find a site, and have someone else dig the hole, leaving us surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of people we didn’t know. Kate wasn’t a conformist in life and I couldn’t condemn her to conformity in death.
When Kate died and I walked up to the cemetery, I realized I’d have to have a stone custom made to look as old and dignified as the others. I’d have to find someone who could make a new stone that looked like an old stone.
First, it had to be marble, not granite, slate, or limestone; from the days of Michelangelo, marble has been the preferred material for the most important statuary. To fit in with other stones in the cemetery, Kate’s stone had to be thinner than contemporary stones, which are squat, thick, and highly polished, and more petite than the big, broad-shouldered stones of the early settlers, which left room for descriptions of family relations, pertinent dates, bible quotes, and spiritual references. That wasn’t Kate’s style. Her stone had to be simple but elegant, unadorned and unpretentious.
Kate’s grave marker had to have a round top. I’d noticed in other farmyard cemeteries around the country that the small gravestones for infants and children had round tops and no adornment. I always thought of Kate as childlike in a sweet way. She loved children’s art and children’s books, fairies and fairy tales, books of whimsy, and clothes that were often more funky than fashionable. She always said she didn’t want to grow old. And she didn’t.
After I put the stone in the ground, I discovered that Kate’ stone had the characteristic of fine china. It glowed around the edges in the light of the rising or setting sun, giving it an aura of ethereal beauty. Marble is a soft stone, subject to the assaults of wind, rain, and sun. So in a hundred years the stone will start to wear down and become illegible. But like the candle that burns at both ends, and like Kate herself, it gives a lovely light.
From my kitchen window I can see Kate’s stone up on the hill, shining bright white against the dark woods in the background and the dark stones that surround hers. It’s comforting to see it there on the hill behind the house. It keeps my memories of her fresh. It’s the place where Kate’s journey on earth ended and my life without her began.
As Kate neared death, she remained stoic. Though she was sick and dying, she didn’t want to talk about it. She withdrew from me. I understood, because Kate always had an inner life that she kept very much to herself. And I had always honored that, but now as we headed silently toward the final moments of our life together, the part of her that was always unreachable became even more unreachable.
In her last year, she spent as much time on the property and at home as she could. We’d hike to the to the top of the hill behind the house to a place called Flat Rock or walk down to the pond in the evening to watch the fireflies and listen to the frogs. Or we’d lie in bed and fall asleep to the rumbling sound of the stream that ran just a hundred feet off the front porch. The land was like a blanket Kate pulled over herself as she sought solitude and sanctuary.
On a Friday night in April, Kate got out of bed and fell on the carpeted bedroom floor. The rescue squad took her to Bennington, and a helicopter moved her to Albany. Anyone on the ground that night who saw the blinking lights in the sky had no way of knowing that the soul of the Hollow was passing overhead. She was swept away in the dark of night without a chance to look back at her house and property or say good-bye to friends and family. By morning, she was dead at 67.
Near the end I stood next to Kate’s bed and held her hand. I could feel her relax as I told her I loved her. I was terrified she was going to die without saying a word. But she opened her eyes, as bright and blue as the day I met her. Our entire lives together passed between us in that final eye contact. In the way of saying goodbye she said slowly and calmly, “I love you too Mr. Peter.”
I can’t imagine what my life would be like if she hadn’t said that.
From the beginning, Kate’s life had been a struggle. There were too many joyless years with the wrong man, too many sick and aged relatives who needed care, and, by her own admission, too many decisions that led her down the wrong roads. Despite her bright mind, private-school education, creativity, and upper-middle-class background, life had passed her by, and circumstances found her in one unsatisfying job after another. In a note she wrote but never gave to me—I found it in her desk drawer—she said, “I am frustrated to be working a job that is so needlessly unrewarding. I wish I could make better use of my abilities. Sometimes I get tired with the effort it seems to just tread water.” That’s why the land was so important to her. Owning and caring for it made up for not having found her niche in this world.
I’ve honored Kate’s wishes for the land, but I’m old now, in my eighties. I won’t be here for many more years. But the land is well spoken for. Kate had developed a working relationship with a neighboring farmer, who has been nourishing the soil, baling hay, plowing, planting, and harvesting. He’s a soul mate of Kate’s who feels the same about preserving the land as she did, someone she had complete trust in to make it useful and productive, but mainly to do it no harm. Someday the land will be his.
And someday down the road, when people hike to the top of the hill to take in the same view that never failed to leave us breathless and speechless, that so comforted Kate in her final days, they’ll see our gravestones—Kate’s and mine—among those of the early settlers. They may hold their faces close to the cool marble to read our names, faded by time and the weather. What the stones won’t tell them is everything Kate left behind. They’ll look around and see only woods and fields and deer grazing in the lower meadow, and hear absolutely nothing but the gurgling stream and the rush of the breeze through the trees. That’s exactly how Kate wanted it.