The baseball scooted under the iron bars linking Wainscott Cemetery to the Wainscott Wildcats practice field, a rare rectangular diamond. I hopped the fence, chased the ball, threw it to the cutoff boy, glanced down, and discovered the perfectly placed final resting place of Gilbert Chauncey Osborn, buried across Hollow Road from his dead general store.
The rest of the game I couldn’t stop thinking about the cosmic coolness of “Chancy” monitoring his beloved business from the great beyond. While the general store was a gloomy ghost in 1968, plenty of people remembered the ‘30s and ‘40s beehive for tractor oil, boat parts, penny candy, canned vegetables, and gossip. Exchanges were arranged by an equal-opportunity curmudgeon who cut ice cream and bacon with the same knife and wisecracked about the cemetery’s residents, current and future.
On that sunny summer Saturday, I learned that graveyards don’t have to be grave. Half a century later, I enjoy them as parks for musing, amusing, and parking the senses — including sense of time. To borrow the original name of Hampton Bays, cemeteries are Good Ground.
I’ve roamed 23 South Fork graveyards, from Southampton Cemetery’s stately maze of evergreen-enclosed crypts to the mossy coves and wooded nests at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor. I found them all accidentally, on purpose. Seeking a summer shortcut in East Hampton led me to Cooper Lane, which led me to Cedar Lawn Cemetery, which I initially passed by because it’s so residential, it could have been poured into the neighborhood.
What can I say? I like to get lost with time to spare. I dig surprises, and what has more surprises per square foot than a cemetery? As an extra added bonus I’m the great-grandson of a Mennonite minister who opened a Pennsylvania graveyard that houses 31 Gehmans, including my parents.
Cemeteries wreck my compass. Ignoring the orderly plots and paths, I zigzag to monuments strikingly shaped, decorated, inscribed, landscaped, and/or located. I beeline to shrines so far off the grid, they’re probably in another afterlife universe. If you painted my crazy steps, they might resemble a cyclonic canvas by Jackson Pollock, whose memorial boulder is a tourist touchstone at Green River Cemetery in Springs, as well as a bold reminder of a rocky life.
Hunting treasure without a map can be very profitable. I met a holy host of long-lost acquaintances during my first two hours of Cedar Lawn meandering. Dick and Erika Mark, our former neighbors on Whitney Lane in Wainscott’s Westwoods. Edith Mansir, my sister Meg’s fourth-grade teacher at Wainscott’s one-room school. Jim Strong, a member of my father’s barbershop quartet. Joseph Heller, author of “Catch-22,” a lightning rod of rebellion during my non-rebellious adolescence.
Like every cemetery fan, I’m a celebrity pilgrim. I’ve spent so much time with famous folks buried on the East End, they’re regular folks. I imagine Gary Cooper riding in an antique car with his pal Henry Austin Clark Jr. from Austie’s Long Island Automotive Museum in Southampton past the nearby Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary R.C. Cemetery, Coop’s future home, behind a lichened rock. In Green River I always hang out with another actor, Peter Boyle, whose lichened rock celebrates him as “the kindest and the best of men.” I first saw him as the Creature in “Young Frankenstein,” which I first saw with my father, who shared Boyle’s loony face and loonier sense of humor.
Beaches make me forget my life. Graveyards make me remember other lives. Standing in an arborvitae fortress in Southampton Cemetery, I feel the intense pride of the eight children of Barbara (Bobbi) Christie Samuels — “great dame,” human-rights activist, and co-inventor of such plastic essentials as sandwich baggies. Sitting on Gabriel Casuso’s bench in Cedar Lawn, I absorb 15 punchy paradoxes, ranging from profound (“Confusing yourself is a good way to keep yourself honest”) to mundane (“The mundane is to be cherished”). In Sagg Cemetery, a village green splitting Sagaponack’s Main Street, I wonder what devious god decreed that Henry O. Golightly, a Manhattan consultant from Texas, should end up two miles west of the Daniel’s Lane retreat of Truman Capote, whose novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” stars a good-time gal named Holly Golightly.
Wainscott Cemetery remains my emotional anchor. There is so much good ground in that L-shaped, flat lot with randomly spaced trees and an incomplete hedge. Plain as plain can be, it’s equally level and leveling. Here everyone is equal: potato farmer and light sculptor, victim of suicide and good old-fashioned old age — also known as “failure to thrive.” Here farewells are never forever, whether they’re poetic (“How sudden was my death / But fleeting breath”) or hilariously blunt (“No Comment”).
My best friend here is Jake Murray, my first writing mentor, my only sex coach, and my dog’s namesake. He lies at the exact center, the only central thing in a productive, destructive life ended by a winter’s jump into the East River. He’s surrounded by a comforting assortment of life-affirming places. The school where my devilish sister forced Edith Mansir into early retirement. The ball field where I met my first best friend. My guest bedroom overlooking Chancy Osborn’s general store, the first dead building I resurrected with my imagination. The chapel with the A.A. meetings Jake should have attended.
Jake is one of a dozen cemetery residents who appear in my South Fork memoir. The latest resident, David Osborn, buried in September, was a retired farmer, an elder of Wainscott’s founding clan, and my graveyard guide. During our tour he introduced me to memorials for his infant daughter Nora; his ancestor Jedediah Osborn, a Revolutionary War soldier killed by friendly fire, and Thomas and Temperance Hedges, the only residents facing east, perhaps because they wanted to be the first to greet the sunrise.
Standing by Chancy Osborn’s stone, David repeated a story about a capital-C character who could have been dreamed up by Norman Rockwell — or Stephen King. One day a stranger entered the general store to inquire about the whereabouts of Nate Hedges, Chancy’s brother-in-law and a member of another venerable Wainscott family. Chancy handed the visitor a shovel, pointed to the cemetery, and snapped: “He’s across the street.”
After we stopped laughing, David explained why Chancy was so cheap with words. “He thought the electricity would be all used up if he spoke too much. I think he liked to talk about the cemetery because no one talked back.”
Geoff Gehman is a former Wainscott resident, a journalist, and the author of the memoir “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons,” which will be the subject of next Thursday’s East Hampton Historical Society book club discussion at 7 p.m. He lives in Bethlehem, Pa., and can be reached at [email protected].