Jaffrey, New Hampshire
This is for writers and readers. And for admirers of gutsy women.
Willa Cather, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several novels set in America’s Great Plains, loved the town of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, enough to follow a first visit in 1917 with many more for decades thereafter. She came for long working retreats, ensconced in a slope-ceilinged room at the Shattuck Inn or in a tent set up in a nearby field. She loved the view of Mount Monadnock from her window, and it is said that she thought she did her best writing in its shadow.
In 1947, when Cather died in Manhattan at the age of 73, her partner Edith Lewis and some local friends fulfilled her wish to be buried in Jaffrey. Having read her famed My Antonia in my youth and the lesser-known Shadows on the Rock during a stay in Quebec City, a visit to her grave had been on my list ever since I had discovered it was nearby. Ms. Cather and I have some other improbable connections, including the fact that she had once taught English and Latin in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where I was born and raised. And we share a belief, in her words, that “Paris is a hard place to leave.”
My husband steered the car through winding roads with postcard-quality New Hampshire autumn views. A kind woman in the town of Jaffrey proper proved better than the GPS at directing us to the Old Burying Ground (in what used to be called Jaffrey Center and what she called it still.) “Park at the Meetinghouse, you can’t miss it (we had), and then walk right behind into the graveyard.” We did.
The sloping graveyard is not large, but it’s not that small, either, and it’s heavily populated with ancient, sometimes illegible, markers interspersed with a few more modern ones. Which is to say that we spent a good half-hour clambering through fallen leaves and searching to no avail. I’d lost my sunglasses and my eyes grew weary from the glare and the re-reading of the same names on gravestones for the third or fourth time, my ankles wobbly and my patience evaporating. We refused to leave without finding her, but were stumped about what to do next. Thus far, the photo of the marker I had managed to download (painstakingly—only sporadic cellular connection in the cemetery) was maddening. It both assured us she was in fact there, but nothing seemed to look remotely like the picture on my phone.
And. Then. My husband spotted the back of a newer, squarish gravestone in a corner at the very bottom of the graveyard, with an array of memorial stones and pine cones across the top. He got there first and nodded. We had found her.
I stood with her for several moments in a warm autumn afternoon that I am certain would have pleased her, leaning on my cane and realizing that we were now both women of a certain age. I read the quotation from My Antonia on the stone:
“ . . . that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."
And I said, quietly, “Hello, Willa. . . Ms. Cather.” And after hesitating in my audacity—because who wouldn’t—I added, “I’m a writer, too.”
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And in case you are wondering . . . Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.