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We park the car and walk up the granite steps into the cemetery, my daughter Sarah carrying a small bouquet of handpicked flowers. We seek out Governor Bradford's resting place, where I once again apologize for novelist William Martin, who suggested in his book Cape Cod that this giant of colonial history might have actually murdered his wife during the Mayflower's maiden journey. We pause at the mass grave of sixty Revolutionary War sailors who perished when the Brig General Arnold sank in Plymouth harbor during the storm-cursed night of December 26th and 27th, 1778. We then stroll thirty feet more down the frost-heaved asphalt walkway to Little Charlie.
We visit the grave at my daughter's insistence. Years earlier we had discovered the small stone, chipped and weathered from six hundred New England seasons. On the face of the white marble stone, barely discernable and becoming less so with each succeeding year, are the engraved words 'Little Charlie,' beneath a sculptured lamb. On the back, if you move aside the dirt and grass at the bottom and scrape the stone clean, the date 1857 emerges, as well as '8 m 17 d.' Sarah plants the flowers in front of the grave and we stand back, silently acknowledging a long forgotten child, dead and buried now for one hundred and fifty years.
When I was working in Spartanburg, South Carolina a woman by the name of Smith murdered her two children by strapping them into their seatbelts in the back seat of her car, and releasing the hand brake allowing the car to roll into a pond. I met a man in the plant in which I was working who once dated this woman. "I'll tell you one thang," the man told me in that most difficult of American accents, "she didn't look like she looks now, she's gained weight in prison. When I first met her, she was a looker...
"You know how we met? I was driving along and we got backed up by an accident. I got out of the car, you know, just to see what was happening ahead, and I looked back and saw this woman smiling at me in the car behind. I walked back to her, and that's how I met Susan Smith. We only went out once, so I can't tell you that much about her. But I'm telling you, man, she was a looker..."
With an afternoon off, I decided to ride over to the site of the tragedy. The area is remote by Massachusetts standards, and poor. The South Carolina piney woods generate a dense, earthy aroma in the southern summer heat. I follow directions down long, straight, sun-baked roads, their borders red clay and sparse, brittle grass. When I come to the entrance to the small pond I pull in and step out to see the mound monument of children's toys, cards, ribbons and messages left by a stunned and horrified nation in memory of two little boys it never knew.
The pond is smaller than imagined, a tarred boat ramp falling into the water barely thirty feet from the mound monument. A group of Japanese stands nearby, quietly conferring, their cameras clicking away. Another car pulls in, the national exposure of this senseless and gut-wrenching story turning the site into a veritable tourist attraction. I poke among the cards and letters, reading the heart-breaking messages from both children and adults, directed to the young unfortunates. I am at once struck by both the heinous nature of the crime, as well as a fascinated incomprehension of how on earth a woman could possibly do such a thing to her own children.
I thought of this as I watched my daughter place the flowers on Little Charlie's grave. At her insistence we visit Little Charlie every couple of years. I marveled at the mysterious, instinctual affection this little girl exhibited from the first moment she found him. An immutable, silent longing to comfort, to care, to covet, a spiritual necessity to simply express a fierce, motherly love and protection over the young, even a youth not her own, even a youngster never known.
Two weeks ago we celebrated Sarah's twenty-first birthday by going down to a local Irish joint and buying her her "first" beer. My wife and daughters were there. My brother and his wife showed up, their daughter and her friends showed up, my friends showed up. Our "we'll only stop for one" turned into six hours. At one point a young friend of my niece cornered me at the bar and asked for advice on writing. I gave the normal blah blah blah reply, a rote response to what are now frequent questions. Nothing uttered suggested that I would momentarily reduce this woman to tears. But as I spoke to her I suddenly stopped and looked over at my girls, laughing with the assortment of friends and family gathered around them. I turned back to this young woman, and perhaps thinking of Susan Smith, perhaps thinking of Little Charlie, perhaps thinking of a thirteen-year-old Sarah, and probably considering a melding of all of these, I suddenly said to her, "Do you want to know what success really is?"
She looked up at me, seemingly surprised by an unexpected curve in the conversation.
"It's when your daughters are your best friends."