Fulfilling Little Nell’s Wish During Quarantine

Our state, Oregon, went into full lockdown in the middle of March this year, and has been in the gradual reopening process over the past months. As I’m among those who was never able to work remotely, working as I do with superheroic adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (or, different-abilities!) in a group home setting, I’ve not been able to focus as much time and energy on writing and on research as I’d like. However, I have been delving into a big Dickens readathon ~ or, perhaps more appropriately, re-readathon.

I’ve recently started the renowned Dickens biography by Michael Slater, having wanted to read it for a long time, only halted by my intense attachment to the Peter Ackroyd biography. I’ve also been rereading ~ or relistening to audiobooks of ~ his novels. One of those has been The Old Curiosity Shop, which I hadn’t read in years. I love the atmosphere, although it’s never been among my top favorites; however, during one of my walks with my brother, I was very much struck again by how applicable Dickens is, even to seemingly disconnected parts of life.

My brother, looking at the vista from one of the cemetery trails

One of our favorite places to walk is the picturesque, historic little town of Jacksonville, Oregon, about 30 minutes away from Ashland, and home to a number just shy of 3,000 residents, but with, at least in pre-Covid days, a relatively hopping little tourist economy, between its old-West downtown flavor and historic homes, surrounding woods and trails, the supposedly-haunted Jacksonville Inn, and the renowned Britt Festival in the summer.

The historic Jacksonville Cemetery is a beautiful place for a walk ~ at least, when it isn’t too hot, because it tends to have spots of intense sun, and a few too many inclines for some of us in the heat. We’ve walked there often over the years, but our walk only a couple of weeks into the strict lockdown last March was particularly memorable.

Although I didn’t take pictures to speak of at the time ~ those in this post were primarily taken since ~ I recall in those first weeks of total quarantine, when we could only go out for essential needs, or to walk, for example, that I was inspired by the quiet, social-distanced, but active presence of people at the cemetery…walking, visiting the graves of loved ones, or simply sitting under the shade of trees to read and nap. I don’t recall having seen so many people there before, although there were no gatherings, or anything else that went against the lockdown regulations. If there is one thing that, just perhaps, we might see more of in a time of shutdown and pandemic, is a beautiful sort of connection to the earth, to family, and to those who have gone before us.

I kept thinking of Little Nell’s lament, when beautifying the little churchyard late in the novel, of the many graves that go unvisited, as though forgotten. She finally opens up about her thoughts to the kind schoolmaster:

“I rather grieve–I do rather grieve to think,” said the child, bursting into tears, “that those who die about us, are so soon forgotten.”

“And do you think,” said the schoolmaster, marking the glance she had thrown around, “that an unvisited grave, a withered tree, a faded flower or two, are tokens of forgetfulness or cold neglect? Do you think there are no deeds, far away from here, in which these dead may be best remembered? Nell, Nell, there may be people busy in the world, at this instant, in whose good actions and good thoughts these very graves–neglected as they look to us–are the chief instruments.”

“Tell me no more,” said the child quickly. “Tell me no more. I feel, I know it. How could I be unmindful of it, when I thought of you?”

“There is nothing,” cried her friend, “no, nothing innocent or good, that dies, and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith, or none. An infant, a prattling child, dying in its cradle, will live again in the better thoughts of those who loved it, and will play its part, through them, in the redeeming actions of the world, though its body be burnt to ashes or drowned in the deepest sea. There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work on earth in those that loved it here. Forgotten! oh, if the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source, how beautiful would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy, and purified affection, would be seen to have their growth in dusty graves!”

~ Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, Chapter 54

So, of course, the schoolmaster is right ~ it is our deeds, and our lives, by which we best remember those who have gone before. Who knows what hidden sparks of life, what dreams and moments of even heroic virtue, might have been inspired by one who died long ago? But still, I understand little Nell’s lament, and it is the peculiar sadness of the cemetery: not so much that it is a place to house the dead, but the broader fear that they are forgotten by the living. We know this isn’t so, but we are connected inextricably to the tangible. Fresh flowers left at a grave site; grass freshly mown and earth recently weeded; little pebbles left like secret messages at a headstone.

One might see it as “morbid,” perhaps, to keep part of one’s focus on the memory of the deceased; but I think there are few things that more awaken us to the living world around us, than the memory of those who are still so alive to us in a more profound way, although not physically present to our senses.

Perhaps for many of the visitors, like my brother and me, many were just in the cemetery for a beautiful walk, or somewhere to read with a vista of the surrounding town and hills, and not specifically to visit the grave of a loved one. But one can’t help but remember one’s own loved ones in such a setting, and one’s connection to the earth. Was it just my imagination, or had the quiet cemetery never seemed so full of life, and active memory, as it had during those early days of quarantine? I hope that those goods that have come from this time of universal lockdown are not too soon forgotten.

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