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Guest column: One last stroll with my grandma at Old English Cemetery

By Hunter Ingram

This was originally published in the Wilmington StarNews

The day after I graduated high school in 2009, my grandmother and I went to our favorite place in my hometown of Salisbury – a cemetery.

Some people may find this odd, but for us, the Old English Cemetery was our spot.

We liked it because it took its name seriously, dating back to 1775 with a plot reserved for Revolutionary War soldiers under General Cornwallis’ command. It is home to gravestones that wear their centuries-old age – be it in cracks or discoloration – like badges of honor.

Every few weeks as far back as I can remember, Maw Maw Cece, as I called her, would pick me up from school and take me to the cemetery, sometimes with my sister Carson in tow.

We’d climb the sturdy stone slab steps into the hilly burial ground and we’d pick a grave. It didn’t matter which one, just any grave that happened to catch our eye or the sun’s beam that day.

We’d read the names inscribed on it, add up the person’s age if the marker wasn’t generous enough to do the math for us and then tell each other a story.

We didn’t know these people, and this was long before I knew how to research the life story of a name on a grave, something I do today for the Cape Fear Unearthed podcast. But we would still construct a life for the person or people with the few details the marker gave us to go on.
Some would be grand love stories, others war-torn tales. They were simple tributes to these names in stone, whose lives were likely much more complex than our own musings.

But for me, spinning that web of historical fiction with Maw Maw right by my side is where I trace my love of history and storytelling back to all these years later.

These are some of the fondest memories of my childhood and they have been weighing on my mind in the last few weeks as Maw Maw’s health declined. This past weekend, she passed away at the age of 79, a decade after the effects of dementia started to rob her of the vibrant vault of memories and stories with which she entertained her family.

As soon as I found out she had passed, I had an overwhelming realization that those trips to the cemetery with her – a formative tradition that I still benefit from today – now only exist in my memory. Now that she is gone and we last visited that cemetery more than a decade ago, my grief doubled over into a fear those memories would fade or be unwillingly taken just like all of her memories were taken from her.

Then I remembered, I had taken a single picture of her out in the cemetery on what would be our last trip. I scoured my phone, but I could not find it. I began to panic through my tears that I had lost this too, or carelessly deleted it.

But I pulled out my computer and, sure enough, there it was, exactly how I remembered it. Tucked away in a folder by a younger me likely knowing deep down I would need it one day. This was that day.

It’s not the best quality, thanks to 2009 cell-phone camera technology. But it captures a moment that has lived in my mind since I was a kid, and one I never want to forget.

She is standing with one hand propped on a grave marker, her other hand on her hip and a big smile on her face. She looks so happy in that moment and, as soon as I saw it, every ounce of that happiness came rushing back to me.

This is how I want to remember Phoebe Cecelia Monroe Hallman Fuller – she always loved when I called her by her aggressively long name. Our strolls around that historic cemetery and seeing her light up at my inventiveness in crafting stories for these people of the past are memories that helped make me the writer and the aspiring historian that I am.

For that, I am so eternally grateful to her.

Today, when I walk the Cape Fear’s many cemeteries, from Oakdale to the Old Smithville Burying Ground, I take her with me and know how proud she would be of me for keeping up our tradition. If only she could see all the great stories I get to tell now.

One day, I hope a young boy will pass her grave and concoct a wild story with just her name to go on. One that is deserving of her warmth, her humor, her beautiful heart and her adventurous mind.

But it still won’t be half as good as the true story of a wonderful woman who passed onto her grandson an appreciation and respect for history, one cemetery trip at a time.

Hunter Ingram is a reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and originally from Salisbury. Email him at Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com

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