By Kelley Shinn
Before I moved into Conk and Micky’s home, just after the handshake that sealed the deal between Ronnie O’Neal’s family and mine, I was anxious to do one thing— I wanted to put a fresh coat of paint on that picket fence.
Instead, the picket fence waited, and the wheelchair ramp—a necessary addition for Micky’s later years—an addition that blocked the welcoming gate in the picket fence through which Micky and Conk had greeted friends and family and strangers alike for decades, had to go. I borrowed a crowbar. I hammered, swore, and finally stood on the still immovable crowbar until I called Chito Guerrero to help. He had it disassembled in a day, and somehow his efficiency gave name to my sorrow.
My parents still live in the house within which I was raised. The wheelchair ramp that my father and uncles scrambled to finish building before I was released from the rehabilitation unit after I lost my legs at 16, still stands there. Whenever I visit, I love and hate the memories. As I had the ramp torn down that gave Micky humble access to the island she loved, and recalled the ramp in front of my parent’s house, all I could think was that one day it would happen to me—that my parents will be gone, and someone will buy the house—and I hope to god they tear that ramp down—and how sad it will be. And though there’s no picket fence where I grew up, a fresh coat of paint has a way of washing all anew, of renewing hope.
I hired my oldest of two, my 16-year-old daughter, to paint the picket fence with friends. Then she was awarded a scholarship to spend her junior year abroad in Germany, and within a few months, she was gone. The fence was prepped little, but never painted.
A month later, to work through my empty-nesting-heart, I began to paint the fence, even enlisted my eight-year-old-son to help.
One day in the Variety Store, Janet Spencer expressed her remorse in the fact that her family cemetery, the Gaskin-Williams cemetery on British Cemetery Road that borders my front yard, had fallen to some disrepair due to family deaths and hardships. I told her I would try to take care of it, since I’d be painting fences anyhow. A few days later, I traveled off-island to Roanoke, Virginia, to take my son’s father, my former partner of more than a decade, to an appointment, only to find his body, his spirit passed away. Learning to honor the dead is a lesson learned best by losing the ones that you love the most.
Upon my return to the island, autumn was well dressed. The days of undress were coming to a quick end. My heart was cloaked in grief. I found more solace than I could have imagined returning to Conk and Micky’s, and the privacy this home and land provides. I’m not one to bear fresh wounds in public.
When I’m sad, I crave the solitude of physical labor, the punishment and healing of it. Sitting on the porch all teary-eyed one morning with a cup of coffee, I thought toward that picket fence. Then, I remembered Janet’s lament. And I remembered that I live here on this island now, amongst the descendants of fiercely resilient people from centuries ago who have opened their arms to me to an extent, and I owe my gratitude. Somehow, it seemed right, to honor the dead amongst me as I was deeply grieving my own.
So I scraped the fence, cleared the thicket and growth from around it with a machete and loppers. It took me several days and scratches and prickly pears to do a decent job. I’d wake in the mornings, and it seemed as if my whole skeleton cracked, and my skin was inflamed. It was a good burn.
Between weather, I primed the fence, painted mostly two coats—I still have one portion to second coat. With each stroke, I thought of my son’s father, his daughter, my daughter, our son, and hundreds of other things. I worked until my body hurt and the sun threatened. Then I’d weep, make dinner, pour a scotch, drink it and go to bed (not necessarily in that order, or singularly).
The days I spent in the small cemetery were holy.
Grief is dislocating to body and mind, and personal mourning rituals are an effective way to process the pain of loss. I felt protected in that sacred space. I worked around the five inhabitants resting there, careful to respect and protect their memories.
I spoke to them silently, even asking them if they were OK with Johnny Cash and Lead Belly on Pandora—all the songs my son’s father and I sang and played together, I explained. Many passersby paused, slowed, or spoke briefly to me. A tourist walked within a few feet of me, snapping close-up photos of the work without saying a word.
Al Scarborough stopped by one day, and pointed to the most recent of the five headstones in the cemetery. He told me that he’d attended the funeral of William Joel Gaskins (1887-1967) as a boy.
He said that “Old Joel” was one of, if not the only islander at the time that had a dog as a pet. O’Cockers, Al explained, still had livestock running amok and free. Dogs would chase them, and sometimes kill them. When they interred Joel’s casket, someone asked if anyone wanted Joel’s dog. Of course, no one did. So they shot the poor creature and threw it in the grave.
“And so there,” Al finished up his story, nodding his head toward the grave, “lies Joel Gaskins and his dog.”
It’s a surprising tale, considering Ocracoke’s present-day, large and beloved dog population. In a place where sundries are the best gifts in winter, where everything must be reused, Al’s story reflects what one might call a cruel necessity. In a time when a general store didn’t carry superfluous luxuries such as dog food, the dog not only presented the expense of another mouth to feed, but was also a threat to native food sources. “It is what it is,” as O’Cockers are wont to say.
George Eliot once wrote “our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” By honoring the stories and lives of those who have gone before, we honor ourselves and create our history.
When Al Scarborough tells me the story about Joel Gaskins, it keeps the fires of memory burning, and the story becomes a gift. In fact, I recall thinking after he drove away in his golf cart: That right there was worth all of this labor. Al’s story not only reminded me of the importance of stories for posterity, but also as a balm for the living. It made me laugh.
As I continue to write and process, my son will be able to remember the life and works of his father, the Golden-Glove-boxer-turned-poet among so many other things, Eric Trethewey.
By honoring his father, I gift my son. And that’s a healing honor for me, too—one for all of us as we share our own stories of loss and love here at the arrival of the holiday season.
As the New Year approaches with all of its promise, and the tally rises of years spent without loved ones, may I extend hope to you and yours, for days filled with kindness, family, good food, and the very best stories.
Rest in Peace:
Annie C. Gaskins, 1861-1931
Thomas F. Gaskins, 1854-1948
William J. Gaskins, 1887-1967
Julia S. Williams, 1884-1936
William E. Williams, 1878-1934
Kelley Shinn is a graduate of the Hollins University Creative Writing Program, where she was the 2006 Melanie Hook Rice Novel-in-Progress Award Winner. Excerpts from her upcoming memoir, Devilstrip, which is a reflection upon Kelley’s experience of losing her legs at the age of sixteen and subsequently communing with landmine survivors a decade later in Bosnia-Herzegovina, were nominated in recent years for a Best American Essay and multiple Pushcart Prizes. In 2013, Kelley Shinn was named Ocracoke Friends of the Library’s Inaugural Writer-in-Residence. was a yearlong fellowship. She won’t leave.