On a slightly hazy fall day, when the autumnal colors were alive, we stopped in Elmira. To understand the significance of this stop, I should explain that from the time my daughter could appreciate it (and probably even before) we used to make fall literary trips. We would take a long weekend and drive to where a famous author had lived. Laura Ingalls Wilder in Pepin, Wisconsin, or Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri. When we moved east we visited Edna St Vincent Millay at Austerlitz, New York, and Washington Irving in Sleepy Hollow. More recently, in the spring, we went to see Rod Serling in Interlaken, New York. So it was that we stopped in Elmira, New York, where Mark Twain rests. I had always assumed Samuel Clemens was buried in Missouri, but his most productive literary period was his time in upstate New York, and it is here he remains.
His tombstone was covered with pennies and a few higher denomination coins, a rock or two, and a guitar pick. People want to show their respects to the writers who’ve meant something to them. I find this a moving tribute. I suspect it happens at the tombstones of many famous people, but in Highgate Cemetery in London we found Douglas Adam’s small plot filled with pens stuck in the ground as mementos. I travel through the world lightly, seldom carrying anything extra with me. Somehow I never stop to think to bring a memory to the cemetery. Fortuitously I had found a penny on the ground the morning we left for Elmira and I placed it among the others on Twain’s marker.
What would make the appropriate calling card to leave? I often wonder that. If I had such a token, I suspect I would feel the need to revisit the various cemeteries of years past to leave a sign of my respect. There are lots of them. Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore. George Orwell in Sutton Courtenay. H. P. Lovecraft in Providence. Is there anything that ties them all together? Pens seem an obvious choice, but stones are far more traditional (especially in Jewish settings). The tradition is traced back to building cairns in biblical times, and the idea survives in that stones are more permanent than flowers and are a sign of respect. Writers often have more elaborate items left, but it’s clear that they are removed from time to time by the grounds keepers. Before I visit my next literary grave, I’ll give some thoughts to symbols and tokens and the importance of celebrating writing.