On a recent visit to Boston (a two-hour drive from our home in Maine), we decided on a whim to swing through Concord, Massachusetts. Famous for its early role in the Revolutionary War, Concord is also home to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where literary giants Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson lay in rest on Authors Ridge —the focus of our impromptu visit.
A sense of solemnity settled over me as I got out of the car; I was stricken with a feeling of sadness immediately followed by regret. You see, I’d brought no offering for these amazing writers. I stopped at the base of the hill, seriously considering turning around and going to the nearest grocery store to pick up a bouquet of flowers.
After a brief confab with my husband—during which he said he’d do whatever I wanted to do (but…did I mention we were on our way home after a long day and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast?)—I waffled but reluctantly decided I’d pay my respects and that would be good enough.
We climbed the small hill to the ridge, first faced with Henry David Thoreau’s gravesite. As I looked at the large stone, I noticed a few pens to one side of the monument…were these left by accident, I wondered? But then I looked more carefully. Each author’s headstone had some small offerings: pens, pinecones, rocks, pennies, all piled on or next to them.
These small items…were they offered as gifts to the deceased greats, I wondered? Or were they more? A prayer, a beseech? A hope? A silent wish? Perchance, were some visitors hoping that a small amount of greatness might rub off, be imparted?
We conferred briefly, my husband and I. He commenting that most of the pens were of the modern, plastic, cheap variety. What would Thoreau or Hawthorne make of such a thing, he wondered? They who wrote each of their manuscripts in long hand with pen dipped in ink—as no doubt did all other writers of their time. What choice had they?
As for the pennies, the pinecones, rocks… even sticks… what of those? We considered the hierarchy. If a visitor thought in advance, they might have brought flowers (there were a few bunches). Others, either by plan and design or simply because they were the compulsive writer type (like me) who never goes anywhere without a pen and paper, had a pen to leave. Others, without pen, must surely have a penny—a common purse or pocket content—and there’s a long tradition of leaving coins at gravesites (with many opinions and ideas of origins).
But what if you didn’t have even a coin? A writer might search to find a pinecone (Authors Ridge is ensconced in a large bank of White Pines, fitting because this was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s favorite tree). Still others, unwilling to take the time to find a pinecone, might have reached for whatever was immediately handy: a pebble, a stick, a handful of pine needles, some other natural adornment.
The more I wandered amongst the headstones, the more determined I became to leave something… a pen seemed preferable—an offering to the muse, but more: a token of appreciation for my hours of enjoyment reading their great works. I dug through my bag and found two. A plain black ballpoint from an insurance broker, his logo etched on the side. And my favorite editing pen—a magenta Inkjoy 500RT. I knew immediately it had to be that one. I pulled my small notebook from my bag and wrote a short note to my favorite of the four. Nathaniel Hawthorne. After folding and clipping my note to the pen, I leaned across the small fence surrounding his gravesite and placed my pen and note among his other offerings.
I’m not going to lie, I had a tear…and a silent hope. I won’t divulge what was in that note. My words to Master Hawthorne’s ear. But in that moment, as I leaned across the chain cordon, I felt a personal connection—a shiver, a presence—across the eons from one writer’s soul to another.
Have you ever paid homage to a great writer? Left something, a token? How, where, and to whom? If not (and you could plan in advance) what might you leave as a sign of respect?