I placed a single red rose on the grave. My finger traced over the name Mary Phagan. The epitaph was one I knew by heart…
IN THIS DAY OF FADING IDEALS
AND DISAPPEARING LANDMARKS
LITTLE MARY PHAGAN’S HEROISM
IS AN HEIRLOOM THAN WHICH
THERE IS NOTHING MORE PRECIOUS
AMONG THE OLD RED HILLS OF GEORGIA.
SLEEP, LITTLE GIRL; SLEEP IN
YOUR HUMBLE GRAVE BUT IF THE
ANGELS ARE GOOD TO YOU IN
THE REALMS BEYOND THE TROU
BEL [sic] SUNSET AND THE CLOUDED
STARS, THEY WILL LET YOU
KNOW THAT MANY AN ACHING HEART IN
GEORGIA BEATS FOR YOU, AND
MANY A TEAR FROM EYES UNUSED
TO WEEP, HAS PAID TRIBUTE
TOO SACRED FOR WORDS.
Looking up, I saw an old couple trudge up the grassy hill towards the grave. I stood up and turned to meet them. “Can I help you?” I inquired.
The lady wore a light blue dress with a matching striped jacket and white sandals. Her brown eyes were framed by glasses and her hair was gray. I guess she was in her mid-to-late eighties. Her husband also had brown eyes and gray hair, balding a little on top. Twin-like, they were almost color-coordinated: he wore a light gray wool suit and pale blue shirt. He must have been around ninety years old, and he walked with a cane. He towered over her.
Somehow, from the way they carried themselves, I knew their questions would be different. Not the usual, “Do you know where the grave of little Mary Phagan is?” “Are you, by any chance, related to little Mary Phagan?” “How do you feel about the murder of little Mary Phagan?”
They seemed to be lost in remembering, too.
The lady looked at me with concern and intensity, and finally spoke: “It was on April 26, 1913, Confederate Memorial Day, that little Mary Phagan was murdered in downtown Atlanta. Not many people celebrate Confederate Memorial Day anymore. Not many native born here anymore.”
She turned her head slightly, and her eyes swept over Mary Phagan’s gravestone. “We remember different times. Times long ago. Times that don’t come back except for her story.”
She paused and added, “We were there. And little Mary Phagan’s story remains with us. All the sadness and some of the hate—we felt it. Yes, times were different all right. A lot of murders happen today. But they don’t symbolize something like hers did. We were one of her kind, hard-working and striving to have a decent life. We made it, but she didn’t.”
For the first time, she looked closely at me. “You look a lot like her,” she said, her voice faltering.
I nodded sadly. “My name is Mary Phagan. Little Mary Phagan was my great-aunt.”
For a moment the couple stared at me in disbelief, and then they wrapped their arms around me to comfort me. “Yes,” the old woman said, “I can see the resemblance now.” Breaking the embrace, she patted my shoulder gently. For a while, we were silent and then, as daylight faded, they politely excused themselves.