There’s not much to do in the small town of Oxford, Mississippi on a Sunday in January.
On fall football weekends the courthouse square thrums with activity. The streets are bustling, sidewalks slammed with students and parents headed out to eat in upscale joints kids can’t afford. Street corner musicians play the blues, but almost no one’s sad. Unless the football team lost.
But a sabbath day in January, when the only students on campus are there for a winter mini-mester? Oxford is as sleepy as a Southern town can be.
As I learned last weekend, the calm presents an opportunity to do something different. Especially when the sun is shining and temperatures drift into the 70s.
I’ve written before that people ought to visit cemeteries when they travel. Yet I’ve been to Oxford scores of times and never visited St. Peter’s, the final resting place of the city’s most famous son: Nobel prize winner William Faulkner.
Shame on me.
So on Sunday afternoon my daughter, granddaughter and I strolled through the streets, past the antebellum mansions to the graveyard. Before we got to Faulkner’s memorial, though, we ambled past hundreds of other graves. The cemetery is vast. As is the case in every historic graveyard I’ve ever visited I was struck by the number of crumbling, miniature markers for children. Barely legible. One family - more than 100 years ago - lost three kids, ages two months, three months and two years. Their names were worn away by time and weather. Just their ages remained.
Thank God for modern medicine and big pharma. Keeping our babies alive.
I stopped briefly at an impressive obelisk marking the grave of William Gaston Barringer. A private in Co. B, the 30th Regiment of the Mississippi Volunteers.
He fell mortally wounded Dec. 31st in the Battle of Murfreesboro. Died January 1, 1863.
William Barringer was 18. Just a teenager. Like so many fallen soldiers in so many wars.
I spied a lichened headstone for a 7-year-old girl named Hallie who died in 1888. On the back of her stone were these two words that break the heart 130 years after her passing:
Finally, we came to our destination: Faulkner’s grave. A favorite late-night gathering place for tipsy students who traditionally drink a toast to the great writer and leave a bottle of whiskey - empty or nearly so - on the grass or granite. They say Faulkner was partial to Jack Daniel’s, but he was also an indiscriminate drinker.
“There’s no such thing as bad whiskey,” he once said. "Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others."
I’ve read that cemetery workers regularly remove the debris from Faulkner’s gravesite and on Sunday there were just two airline whiskey bottles, a pen and dozens of pennies scattered everywhere around his site. A smartly dressed couple who looked as if they’d just come from church approached the grave ahead of us and reverently dropped copper coins on his marker.
In 1924, as he was about to be fired from his job as postmaster at the University of Mississippi (they say he closed the post office frequently to golf or write and threw away mail he deemed unimportant), Faulkner penned this indignant resignation letter:
“As long as I live under the capitalistic system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”
I was sorry I didn’t have my wallet.