The scraggly oak trees form a tall ceiling that shades the entire drive. It’s not that a view of the sun and sky would be unpleasant on this warm day of early spring, but it’s nice to have it blocked all the same. The appropriate view of the eternal isn’t blue and bright, but sheltered close to the ground. The rows of marble and granite dazzled by bright flowers that give it a sense of redemption, but the 5 MPH speed limit and gentle wave from each passerby that gives it grace.
This is Oakland Cemetery, Saint Paul’s municipal cemetery, founded in 1853.
We came to bring the first tulips of the year to the people that first lived in our house 150 years ago. The Spencer family are almost like old friends to us after so many years of living in a house that, in many ways, still belongs to them. Every home tour the stories of the Spencers make the bits of wood and plaster come alive. They were founders of the Republican Party and active abolitionists. President Lincoln appointed William A. Spencer clerk of the US District Court in 1863 in return for his loyal service. Up in the attic, the kids all carved their names, including “Charles L. Spencer, Apr. 14 ‘69”. The quality of the carving shows that he was going somewhere. The day was the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, then a solemn holiday without school.
Charles wound up having a very interesting life. His Aunt, Fanny Spencer Wilder, asked him to help create a new kind of non-profit company. Charles was the natural choice because he was married to the daughter of the Governor, David Clough. The authorizing bill passed easily and Charles Spencer became the first President of the Wilder Foundation – still a major provider of housing services in Saint Paul and one of the largest charities.
The Spencers, like all the pioneers, lived close together in the small town of Saint Paul. They are now buried close together in the NW corner of Oakland Cemetery. The trip under the oaks to see them and give them the first flowers of the season passes just long enough to put some perspective on a visit to the old pioneers who made Saint Paul what it is. Once we get there, however, a different connection is made.
Amid the rounded old stones are new ones, many of them with pictures etched into the granite. The graves are usually well tended and full of flowers. The names are Xiong and Vang, not like the pioneers Ramsey and Spencer. But just in case you doubted that these are pioneers in their own way, one of the stones has these vital facts:
Born Jan 13, 1913
USA Feb 12, 1980
Died Jan 15, 2001
Coming to America was obviously a rebirth worthy of note to all of eternity. It made this man what he was as surely as it made Saint Paul what it is. Among these newcomers, the flowers are fresh and the memories are very much alive. A Styrofoam container with a meal half-eaten sits on one grave, a picnic shared through time as much as hope. Our offering of tulips seems a bit thin, but it’s what we have.
My kids find it a bit eerie, but they’re learning what it means to be a part of both space and time. They even enjoy it, if for no other reason than it’s a chance to go back to a place that was a bit scary before they got used to it. If the Spencers are still ghosts in our house, they’re benevolent and kind. Sure, they know where we live, but we know where they live – er, whatever. It all works out in a Celtic kind of way.