It’s been at least 20 years since I visited Winston Churchill’s grave in the tiny English village, a stone’s throw from Blenheim Palace, the ancestral seat of Churchill’s uncle, the Duke of Marlborough, where the history-making prime minister was born.
I like to visit the graves of those I admire and pay my respects. I reflect on the good of their lives and how my life benefited from theirs. Then, I pray.
This is how it happened that I was kneeling at Churchill’s obscure burial site that resides with perhaps 40 or so other graves — including his wife, Clementine — behind the 12th Century stone Parish Church of St. Martin’s in Bladon.
Head bowed, eyes closed, I became aware of a racket going on. I opened my eyes, looked past the churchyard to see a blonde-headed woman in a plaid overcoat on the cold, gray Jan. 24 — the anniversary of Churchill’s death in 1965 — holding a leash and running, quite a bit behind, to catch the dog that had escaped.
A white, stout and jowly bulldog ran purposefully toward me, drew to a stop and sidled up close. I was petting him when his owner finally caught up.
“Please, forgive me. It’s quite out of disposition for him. He never does —.” She stopped when she saw the name on the headstone, then jumped backward.
“Oh, my,” she whispered. “That’s quite something, isn’t it?”
During the war, Winston Churchill was sometimes drawn in caricature as a bulldog because of his tenacity and his portly physical resemblance to that no-nonsense animal. He was lovingly nicknamed “British Bulldog.”
It is the only time I’ve ever seen a bulldog while visiting England.
Ever since Alabama writer and queen storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham died a few years ago, I’ve wanted to see her grave to close out our story. Unlike Churchill, I knew her, albeit briefly.
Throughout the South, big storytelling festivals are held where people just get up and tell a story. A good storyteller will pick up a following.
I was in Williamsburg, Virginia, on business, when I saw a handbill for a storytelling event that night. So many people had shown up that the city’s fire marshal had closed down admittance. They allowed me to stand to listen to a few stories. At the concession stand I asked, “Who is the best storyteller?”
“Kathryn Tucker Windham. Without question.”
I bought her CDs and quickly discovered they were right; she was excellent. When I first met her, she was around 88. She called to thank me for a story I had written on her, then invited me to her tiny clapboard house in Selmer, Alabama.
“Now, you’re not comin’ over to the highfalutin’ side of town,” she said on the phone. “Know that before you get here.”
It was the loveliest afternoon. Later, she pointed out the shed behind her house, remarking nonchalantly, “That’s where I keep the handmade casket I’m gonna be buried in.”
When she died, a few days short of 93, she was, indeed, put in that pine box, loaded in a friend’s pickup truck and carried to her grave. It took a lot of looking to find her grave and, honestly, I didn’t feel overly safe in the midday of New Live Oak Cemetery, though it is historic, with majestic monuments and towering magnolias covered in Spanish moss.
She is buried next to her husband, Amasa, who died over 50 years before Miss Kathryn. Another daughter lies close by. Miss Kathryn is buried in a place similar to how she lived: simple with nothing fancy.
When I visited her, she, despite a challenging life, kept saying, “I’m so blessed. Isn’t life wonderful? Just wonderful!” It sounded better in her lyrical drawl.
Her gravestone reads: “She was twice blessed. She was happy and she knew it.”
What beautiful words to close out the book on one’s life.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.