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The Quaker Café

Chapter One

Where you decided to bury a body in the South is not a matter to take lightly, and certainly not a decision to make without adequate sleep or caffeine. The long-term ramifications could turn into a disaster.

Unlike any other place Liz Hoole had ever been, Cedar Branch folks liked to keep mom and dad close to home, usually in the front or back yard. She’d tried to discuss this oddity with her husband once. “Why does your family put graves in the backyard?”

“What?” he’d looked at her blankly.

“I don’t understand why your family put a cemetery in the yard.”

He seemed confused. “To bury people…why else?”

She trudged on. “Why not behind the Quaker Meeting House?”

“Because it’s a family cemetery. If we buried family behind the Quaker Meeting House, they wouldn’t be in a family cemetery.”

Liz didn’t feel like she was making much progress. “But what if someone should decide to sell the family home?”

Her husband, Chase Hoole, a birthright Quaker who’d left his home town only long enough to get a degree, seemed resigned. “It’s just not something we want to think about.”

Liz let it drop.

Twelve years earlier when Chase’s sister Sophie lost a child only days after birth, a decision had to be made about where the grave should be. Since the unfortunate death came out of sequence with normal expected deaths, an endless procession ensued back and forth to the family plot to decide exactly where each person would be buried so that the generational lines were clear. Remembering that emotional task, Liz did not want to embark on anything similar with her best friend, Maggie Kendall. Maggie had to bury her father, the prominent Judge Corbett Kendall. She was not prepared and obviously shaken.

A hundred yards behind the Kendall plantation home known as Cottonwoods, the family plot sat inside a perimeter of a dozen or more pecan trees. Instead of a wrought iron fence, a brick wall had been carefully built, making it more upscale than most cemeteries around the county.  Enhanced brick columns with a large decorative K stood at each corner.

The location had proven to be a mistake, despite the abundance of manna from heaven that the trees produced. Not only had roots become a problem as the trees aged, but in the early 1980s, due to changes in migration patterns, millions of blackbirds descended on Cedar Branch for several days every November as they headed south. They would swarm over the town like a great dust bowl, squawking and screeching before finally roosting in the trees for the night, the pecan grove being one of many favorite spots. In the morning at sunrise they’d reverse the pattern and head for the recently harvested corn and peanut fields.

The town council had called in agricultural experts to discuss the problem, but no agreeable solution could be reached. It would pass, they assured everyone. One year the birds would find another town to roost in and simply stop showing up. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. One morning several years earlier, however, when Maggie was recovering from a late night election party that had not turned out well, the birds awoke her with a roar. Having taken as much as she felt obligated to, she’d yanked her father’s Smith and Wesson out of his desk drawer and headed out to rid herself of the noisy pests. She fired wildly into the trees for several minutes, scattering the hordes and inadvertently killing a neighbor’s dog. In addition, she had a sizeable amount of bird-do dumped on her as the flock fled.

The dog turned out to be named Spud, a beloved pet owned by the Mohatts, a black neighbor living on a small piece of land they leased from her father. The Judge was horrified. This was exactly the type of incident that could fuel racial tension. Judge’s daughter kills pet of local black family. This was not something that played well for any politician, much less a good neighbor. Maggie immediately worked out a compensation agreement with the family and bought them another dog of their choice.

The following Sunday both Maggie and the Judge accompanied the Mohatts to Jerusalem Baptist Church outside of town and expressed their remorse during the service. The following week the Judge proposed to the Town Board that Cedar Branch be declared a Bird Sanctuary so that an incident like this would never happen again. The next time someone started blasting slugs into the air, who knew what or whom might be hit?

A motion was promptly made and passed that you couldn’t shoot birds inside the town limits. A sign that read Bird Sanctuary was posted on each of the entrances to Cedar Branch. Ironically, one sat right in front of Cottonwoods.

Maggie accepted her public humiliation with grace. Gradually the jokes at The Quaker Café ceased, and the signs fused into the landscape like background music in an elevator. Now she stood in the middle of the cemetery under an umbrella of trees,   pacing from one side to the other, like the two roads that ran through her town:  north-south, then east-west.

“What’s the problem?” Liz said, as she caught up with her.

“This is so silly,” Maggie moaned. “I never expected to get so upset over this.”

“Over what?” Liz looked around the small plot.

“Look, just look,” Maggie demanded, as if it were too obvious to put into words.

Liz opened the gate and walked through the three rows of eleven stones, each decorated by a lyrical Biblical verse. At the stone of Maggie’s mother she stopped. “So your dad’s grave would be here, next to your mom…right?”

“And?” Maggie stared at her expectantly.

Liz continued to stare at the stones. “And…the cemetery is full,” she finally admitted.

“Yes,” Maggie exhaled.   “There is no place left for me.”

After a pause, Liz finally broke the silence. “Surely you and your father discussed this.”

“He expected I would begin another long line of Kendalls and we’d build a second plot, out from under these damn trees. After I turned forty-five, I think he finally accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to give him any grandchildren. That’s when he started talking about being cremated.”

“So,” Liz said, “that simplifies things. He wanted to be cremated.”

“No, he didn’t. He just didn’t want me to worry, that’s all.”  Maggie started pacing again. “You know this really hurts. I can’t cremate his body.”

“Why not?”

“He seemed so big in life, such a powerful man. The idea of him at the front of the church in a bottle would be an insult.”

“What if you bury your dad and then you’re cremated?” Liz said.

“I’m not ready to make a decision like that.”

“You don’t have to. The only person you need a grave for now is your dad.”

“But then, I’m stuck. I have no other option,” Maggie said.

“There are always other options. Take out a wall, extend the plot.”

“The bricks wouldn’t match. It would look bad …too many roots.”

“Tell you what, why don’t you give it twenty-four hours.”  Liz softened her tone. A lot had happened in the past twelve hours. Maggie needed to give herself permission not to make a decision if she wasn’t ready. “Give it time and a way will open.”

“Oh, you sound just like a Quaker,” Maggie said rather harshly. “Quakers take forever to get anything done.”

“But when it’s done, everyone is in agreement,” Liz said.

“That’s only because you wait for all the dissenters to die.”

“It’s not a perfect system,” Liz admitted.


The Quaker Café
by by Brenda Bevan Remmes