In my freshman year at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, I had a professor of poetry who was one of those you never forget and inspires you in a way that has affected your life ever since. Her name was Alona Thaxton Shepard. She came from Georgia and was a true southern belle. I only had one class with her, but she became a good friend during some hard times of mine and everyone missed her when she moved back to Toccoa GA in my sophomore year. Then in my junior year I found out that she had commited suicide. She had a condition in which her pain receptors were twice as sensitive as they should be and she spent her life in a lot of pain. She had gone to a dentist in Georgia that had done a shoddy job and she couldn’t take it anymore. I never got to say goodbye to her, and I realized that I was also cut short of reading and knowing her poetry. So two years later when I moved to Savannah because my husband got a job at SCAD, I knew I would take the opportunity to visit her grave, read more of her work and share it with the poets here. So this is my trip to Toccoa with all it’s failures and successes and as it has turned out, a “to be continued” ending.
I left Savannah on May 30 early in the morning and headed out with my Google map to Athens. My plan was to stop at the UGA Library and copy Alona’s dissertation as she never published her poetry in any other venue. At 9:30 am I stopped for breakfast in the Huddle House in Harlem GA and made these notes: Things most often seen on the roadside: Churches, road kill and auto body repair shops.
So far I’ve learned that 65 miles an hour is too fast to stop and take pictures of the mist covered pond. It will be quite a hike back to the pond from where you finally stopped your car and the pond will be so mosquito ridden that the romance of the misty water will be lost.
I got into Athens, found my hotel, and went straight to the Library. I had the call number already, emaied to me by a friendly librarian so that I wouldn’t waste any time looking for her dissertation once I got there.
Her’s started with LXC and as far as I could determine the L section ended at LF and then there were lots of empty shelves, not a good sign. I asked the reference Librarian and she informed me that the dissertations were kept at on off campus site but could be ordered in a couple days. Informing her of my time limits she said there was another copy in a particular room on the third floor.
The gentleman there informed me that no, there were no extra copies there but he could order it for me and have there on Monday. I told him of my trip and its purpose, he felt badly for me and tried to compensate by expounding on other things they had that might be of interest. This list included a book bound in human skin.
Accepting defeat I decided to look around Athens and get lunch. I would order her thesis through interlibrary loan when I got home.
In honor of Sharjah, the city where I met Alona, I decided to eat at an Indian restaurant. I ordered a sweet lassie to drink, butter chicken, garlic Nan and rice. It was fantastic. My waiter was a timid Indian gentleman. The skin on his hands was like supple paper and he could see the disappointment in my face when I requested Gulab Jamun for desert and he had to inform me that they only had it on Fridays. I wondered if he misses India and I wondered what brought him to Athens of all places.
The next morning I got up early, did my Tai Chi and headed to Toccoa.
Once I was there I found Roselane cemetery quite easily. I was assuming that this was the “city cemetery” as noted in Alona’s obituary because it was the only one I could find on-line. It was not a large cemetery but there was no one at the office, so I decide to hike it and check every tombstone. After an hour or so in the full sun and the occasionally interesting grave markers of racecar drivers, I had to accept that if she was buried there it was an unmarked grave. I decided to go check into the hotel and drive through the town.
The thought of her grave not being marked stirred up disappointment in me, and then I thought of how silly that is, why should the presence of a large rock make any difference? Then I realized that my expectation of closure was tied into the size and grandeur of her tombstone, like somehow if she has a big elaborate one it would make me feel better than if it was one of those little plastic signs with the sliding letters. But that’s what we do with tombstones isn’t it? They are an attempt at immortality, and the larger and more complicated they are, the better we feel about the loss of the physical person, to the point where we build mausoleums or life size sculptures of the dead, when all this journey of closure actually needs is a stillness from the visitor. A moment of remembrance. Perhaps this is what my trip really was, me creating a space in my time to remember Alona.
I asked the gentleman with the round soft belly and the eyes of a doe at the hotel desk if there was another cemetery in town. “Yes,” he said “and Roselane cemetery is not the city cemetery.” He gave me directions to the Toccoa City Cemetery, but warned me that is was quite big and there was no office to ask for the specific location of a grave, in fact he used the old cliché of haystacks and needles. I found the cemetery. It had several entrances and I missed the first two but turned into the third. I seemed to have entered into the older part of the cemetery and figured she probably wasn’t buried there, so my plan was to just drive around the newer parts and see if I could find her. I drove over the first hill, looked to my left and there she was on the crest of a hill overlooking a small valley! I got out of the car and walked down to her. “Well, there you are,” I said “And here I am.”
I sat down and told her about the trip. I told her about my kids, I told her she was missed, I promised to get her poetry online. I videoed one minute of silence at her grave, and then I told her goodbye which I realized is why I had come.
I poked around Toccoa took some pictures of old buildings and then returned to my hotel room for a horrible pizza dinner and a hot bath in a very small tub. After the bath I watched TV and the movie The Da vinci Code came on, I’d seen it before but enjoyed it so I decided to watch it again. At one point in the movie a specific reference to a quote from the book of Job was made, realizing I was in a hotel, I opened the bedside drawer and took the bible out to check the quote. I noticed someone had written something in the back of the cover, it said “Mickey Spinks, Rockmart GA Timothy 7,8.” I looked this up and read “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day and not to me only but unto all them also that love his appearing.”