Cemetery photo with saying representing a fata morgana

The stories of the past aren’t a fata morgana, they’re just waiting for you to give them voice.

Cemeteries don’t deserve their spooky reputation. Sure, they’re full of dead people (cue my father-in-law’s obligatory joke about “people just dying to get in there”), but they’re more than that.

They are the final resting place of our grief, a place where we can go and pay respects, one of the places where we can grope for some sort of continued connection to loved ones. They’re that and more.

Cemeteries are places where long-forgotten stories intermingle.

Odd as it makes me—and admittedly, it probably registers low on all the things that make me odd—I enjoy the cemetery where my parents are buried. I have from the summer they died. Though I found no connection or consolation from visiting their graves, I took an immediate liking to their neighbors.

Oakwood is a place where joggers jog and dog walkers tarry. It’s a diverse community of those who died too young, brave veterans—some harkening back to the civil war, elderly widows reunited with the loves of their lives, and plots of posthumous family reunions. The stories float around—just beyond my grasp, a fata morgana of stories of life journeys.

My friend John Kingston introduced me to the concept of fata morgana. It’s a superior mirage; the shimmering band of light that you often see on the horizon, particularly in warm weather. It’s an unreachable apparition, a seemingly apt metaphor for the stories of the past.

However, here in Michigan, fata morganas on roadways pale in comparison to their appearance in other parts of the world. For instance, in the Straits of Messina, between Sicily and mainland Italy, fata morganas are known for the show they put on, refracting light into castles, cliffs, and ships.

A fata morgana

A fata morgana at sea

The weather doctor, Keith C. Heidorn, explains the phenomenon: “In a Fata Morgana mirage, distant objects and features at the horizon appear as spikes, turrets or towers, objects with great vertical exaggeration rising from the surface… Literally, Fata Morgana means the Fairy Morgana, a reference to the English legends of King Arthur’s enchanted sister Morgana, who dwelled in a crystal castle beneath the sea.”

Fata Morgana of Stories

Perhaps the comparison is backward. In other words, perhaps it’s the fata morgana that’s like those stories of the past, waiting to be told. They appear—a visual prompt, appealing to the imagination. They hover, just out of reach, just out of comprehension, begging to be conjured into narrative.

A fata morgana is made of refracted light, dissipating upon approach.

The stories we seek don’t dematerialize. In fact, the opposite is true.

The stories intermingling in cemeteries (as well as in shoeboxes, ignored journals, and that list of well-intentioned things we plan to get around to), don’t scatter and lose definition as we approach. The details of the life, if only the start and finish, stay in focus. And, with creativity and care, the focus sharpens, the longer we look. They wait, patiently through the ages, for our research and imagination to bring them to life.

Stories often hang out in the netherworld, a world not unlike the proverbial tip of the tongue. They’re just waiting for someone to give them voice.

Your Turn:

It doesn’t take much fairy magic to transform those castles in the air into beautiful family tales. Turn a fata morgana or two into a narrative that will continue to connect your family to their past and their heritage.

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