The Last Visitor

I watched the fog’s remnants brush the river surface on its languid retreat to the open bay, its tentacles swaying in the cool morning breeze as if to a slow waltz. As the smoky mist moved away, a faded-green motel mirage just across the river solidified and I could make out its dozen or so empty boat slips waiting like a row of homely girls at a dance hall. I wondered if the last person to stand at this spot saw the same thing. I looked down at William Pennewell’s grave and pictured someone else doing the same, but at a different time.

Perhaps the last person to visit William did so in 1965 while Dick Clark introduced the world to Sonny & Cher and Sony its ill-fated Betamax. The last visitor may have looked up from William’s grave to see vacationers laden with coolers, Frisbees, pillows, lawn chairs, buckets and shovels, fishing poles, and diaper bags; the motel’s docks full of canoes, bait buckets, paddleboats, shrieking children, and mothers issuing warnings. He or she may have watched the owners arrange picnic tables, sweep the walk, tidy the dock, and rush room to room readying them for weekend anglers, beachgoers, and others eager to hear and see the ocean and taste the salt air. Years later, someone visiting this gravesite may have seen a motel demoted to temporary shelter and rooms-by-the week, its docks empty, and bright yellow dandelion blooms and wild grass poking through the gravel parking lot. They might have been here when there was no dock, no tourists, just vacant foxtail-covered land, the little motel not yet an entrepreneur’s dream come true. Hard to tell. The last visitor to this spot may have watched, less than a hundred yards away on the same side as the little cemetery, the making of a champion. The famed racehorse, Man O’ War, trained here in the 1950s when this land was Riddle Farm, long before the current owners of Glen Riddle Golf Course turned it into a high-price hacker’s pastime, the cemetery a de facto resident. The long, straight, sandy track where Man O’ War trained still exists, but as a bunker for hole #8. Is that what the last person to visit William Pennewell’s grave espied?

I picked-up one foot, put it down, then did the same with other, back and forth like a penguin, and pushed my hands deeper into my windbreaker. I envisioned blustery Eastern Shore winds shove cold up under the clothes of William’s last visitor the same way. Standing with my eyes scrunched to make it easier to think in the past, I saw in my mind’s eye a wife-perhaps a son, daughter, or both-look up from their grieving, past the bay to the now-infamous barrier island turned All-American resort.

William Pennewell died in 1871. He died when there was no Ocean City; just a few brave souls occupying a barren, windblown, unfriendly, unclaimed strip of landyears before fishing shacks owned by those industrious or foolish enough to build so close to a sea chummy with hurricanes dotted the island. Decades before shiny condominiums and florescent light poles silhouetted the skyline. When the grave at whose foot I stood was fresh, one could easily see upriver, out to and across the bay, over the island, and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean a couple of miles away. In 1871, few envisioned the barrier island swarming on a hot August weekend with several hundred-thousand tourists. The Ladies Resort to the Ocean (that’s what they called it before Ocean City) and its dozen or so semi-permanent residents had not yet been exposed to years of water damage to property intentionally built in harm’s way. The thought of hauling millions of cubic feet of sand from the sea’s bottom and using it to build high dunes and bulwarks in a Sisyphus effort to stop the ocean’s onslaught was decades off. The view to the sea from this spot was unspoiled with no buildings or dunes to block the view. I imagined fresh flowers on some of the graves already here-perhaps a freshly dug hole or two-and several buried children, I suppose, for in those days they often died of known and unknown sicknesses or by mishandled farm implements and machinery usually operated by a family member.

The little cemetery and its inhabitants are now mostly forgotten; even old-timers in the area not quite old enough to have first-hand knowledge of this or that person passing “The guy that would know that died a few years back,” often the reply. It sits on land in Berlin, Maryland now occupied by Glen Riddle Golf Course. At one time this land was part of the Riddle farm owned by Samuel D. Riddle, the man who bought Man O’ War-one of the greatest thoroughbred racehorses of all time-in 1923, from August Belmont, Jr. Yeah, that Belmont. Glen Riddle Golf Course has two courses: one named Man O’ War and the other after his son, War Admiral, also a champion and owned by Sam. A golf course, aside from a golfer’s occasional curse after hitting an ill-fated golf shot, seems to me an ideal neighbor. Aside from the occasional Dammit! it is typically quiet, the grounds irrigated and manicured, birds singing, the sound of a sprinkler head rising from the turf like a mechanical gopher, and a groundskeeper or two hoeing a sand trap or pampering a green…in a way, peaceful. I refocused on the dozen or so graves and wondered if anyone still in the area knew, or even cared, that a relativesomeone without whom they might not be on this earthis buried and forgotten here. I wondered when the last person to pay their respects was here. Who was the last visitor?

It occurred to me: one cannot rebuke another’s decision to stop visiting buried family or friends. It is, after all, a choice; a choice that is one’s to keep, or not. The slow, lugubrious walk to the gravesite, nosegay in hand, is rarely pleasant-flowers, after all, are not for the dead, but to assuage one’s guilt for living. Still…it seemed to me, standing there with William and the interred others he likely knew, laughed, perhaps even cried with, that those visiting should leave some sort of note…a record of his or her visit. In this way, anyone happening upon this quiet scene could know its last visitor…who he or she was, whom they were visiting, and when they were here. The chain of attendance would be unbroken-suspended from time to time, yes-but not severed; the time between visits, however long, a pause, not an abandonment.

William J. Pennewell (1805-1871) lays next his wife, Mary B. Pennewell (1818-1883). There are several more tombstones-John and Ana Pitts, Thomas and Eliza Massey, a few too worn to read-a dozen or so total if one counts the small markers with initials, probably children. It appeared to me neither William, Mary, nor any of their coterie had seen a visitor in some time. The small cemetery sits on the southern side of Turville Creek, just across from Taylorville, Maryland, its half-dozen or so businesses and a Methodist church all that is left of the town. It’s the responsibility of Glen Riddle Golf Club because it owns the land. Glen Riddle tends the cemetery: they mow and trim the grass, right the occasional fallen stone, and pick-up branches and limbs from old sycamore trees that share this final resting place. I grimaced at the sight of trees growing directly from a few plots or from under the corner of a tombstone. Not that it matters anymore…still. The black, metal picket fence surrounding the group of tombstones is chipped but painted, the gate squeaky, but in decent order. Strange, that but for a company’s legal obligation there would likely be no gate, no fence, stones covered with strangled grass, weeds, leaves, and at the mercy of foolish vandals. Whether from the heart or not, William Pennewell and company are taken care of by others; just not anyone they would recognize.

Engraved names on worn stones in old cemeteries around here are as familiar as street signs, because many of them are now: Pitts Road., Massey Crossing, Pennewell Lane. We see them while shopping, picking-up the kids from school, gassing the car. I stooped to pick-up a gum wrapper clinging to a tuft of grass next to William’s stone and looked up Turville Creek, out past the entrance to Isle of Wight Bay and across to Ocean City. A half-mile or so behind me is Ocean Downs and Casino-the state’s version of reverse welfare. Less than a hundred yards to my right, a small green flag with a stenciled #7 bends, but stubbornly holds fast to its place on the cut and trimmed green. The winds blow hard off the Atlantic as winter makes way for spring and causes the pennant to flap loudly enough that if William and the others were able to hear, they could. I reminiscence about Man O’ War and War Admiral and visualize them stamp the hard, packed ground, snort and shake their groomed heads, steam-like puffs emitting from their nostrils, unaware that one would have eighteen holes of golf named after it. William Pennewell might himself have seen, when new, the starting gate preserved at the end of the sandy strip once part of the practice track that is now a golf hazard and punishment for the occasional errant shot. Good company, William, I thought. I took a pen from my jacket and wrote my name and date on the gum wrapper still in my hand, set it at the base of William’s marker, and on it placed a stone. It would have to do. I am the last visitor.