Afternoon at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

October 31, 2019

 

“Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” said Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, “I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” 


In my case, instead of taking to ship, I’d often walk by myself or, if the weather outside would not permit, retire to my private library and enter that proverbial world of books.


One of the early stories I loved ever since I first heard it told by my teacher at the Naga Parochial School is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The story came to life again today. Here’s how:


Because it is Halloween season, we spent the early evening taking turns telling ghost stories over dinner. When my turn came, I told two favorite stories of my youth: the phantom lady of Barlin Street and the headless priest of Ateneo de Naga. I’d always wonder to this day, I confessed to my family, whether or not those stories were true. I recounted that as I walked through the dark streets at the back of our house in Bagumbayan going to Queborac, I swore that I would often hear footsteps and see shadows that would always prompt me to utter “tabi po” over and over. In both wings of the Ateneo de Naga, when walking alone, I’d always felt a cold chill at the back of my neck each time I felt the presence of the headless priest so that I’d keep turning and my head while I walked, nay ran.


“We are not babysitting this weekend,” my wife said, passing the dessert.  “Are we going apple picking?”
“I don’t like apple picking,” I said. “Let’s go someplace else.”


“While we’re on the topic of headless ghosts,” my son said, “why don’t we go and visit the Headless Horseman himself?” 


“You mean the Headless Horseman of the legend?” I said.


“Why don’t we go to Sleepy Hollow,” my son said. “It is just an hour-long drive. It’s the best time of year to visit.”


So today, the next day, finds us driving to the east bank of the Hudson on our way to the village of Sleepy Hollow. As soon as we’re here, we turn around the bend for our first stop, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and we are greeted by a monument of the Headless Horseman chasing another horseman. I am visibly amused. There again, across the monument stands a gas station with another display of a life size inflated figure of the Headless Horseman clutching a pumpkin. 


“We are now inside the storybook,” I tell everybody in the car. 


We get off the car after we passed by the bridge and walk to the Old Dutch Church and burying ground.  The old church was built in 1685 and remains to be an active burial ground.


“Watch your backs, everyone,” I warn everyone. “You’ll never know when the Headless Horseman is going to show up!” My family is used to my mock warnings on the corn-comb. 


We make our way to the burial grounds. There are many headstones and family crypts here. Many graves are marked with American flags. Many of these were veterans of the American Revolution. Their flags have a medallion at the base. There are also white marble headstones with a weeping willow. They say this symbolizes sadness, gladness, and/or immortality.


I am strangely exhilarated by the atmosphere of repose. Sleepy Hollow certainly does not disappoint. A “drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere,” wrote Washington Irving, and today 200 years later it still holds true. 


We walk to the south end of the cemetery overlooking the church where the famous author of the legend and some of his relatives are buried. Upon his request, this cemetery was named Sleepy Hollow Cemetery some years after his death. The cemetery is not creepy at all. Quite the contrary. There are children running across the grave lawns, tourists all over the place, and vendors selling hot dogs and apple cider. Soon my wife and I find ourselves enjoying a meal while taking pictures beside the headstones of famous persons buried here, like Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers, Walter Crysler, Elizabeth Arden, Leona Helmsley, the Astors, to name a few. Not bad company at all.


In the distance, we overhear tour guides narrating Washington Irving’s famous story.


We walk back to the car and pass by the Headless Horseman Bridge. I look around and marvel at the beauty of the autumn leaves. The scenery and the landscape, the old style homes, and happy families walking around make everything appear like I were inside the pages of a book in 18th century America. But since it is lunchtime, I place a bookmark on this particular page and look for the nearest pizzeria.


Meanwhile, the town is preparing for the afternoon Halloween Parade. People in costumes suddenly appear from everywhere. No Spiderman around, though. Instead, a man from a second floor apartment throws a stuffed toy tarantula suspended on a string in front of us and my wife screams, and we all have a good laugh at the prank. 


After lunch, we learn that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow performance we all came here for to watch is sold out. Bummed by the news, I suggest that we head over to visit the estate of Washington Irving instead and make the best of the rest of the pleasant afternoon. 


At the estate, we enjoy outdoor games amid a pleasant view of the Hudson River, and all of a sudden we are told that there will be a dramatic story telling time included in the program of activities. To our delight, it is a dramatic performance of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. “Good thing that performance earlier today was sold out or else we would have missed this,” I tout at this lucky streak.


The storyteller retells the tale of a love-struck school teacher’s pursuit of a beautiful woman with many suitors with such excitement that suddenly the names of Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, Brom Bones all come to life again. You can bet your bottom dollar that from within that dark forest, the Headless Horseman will emerge any second from now. 


As we drive home heady from the storybook trip, I cannot help wondering if the present generation with all their quality time logged onto social media are depriving themselves of the boons of the imagination. This may be a very informed generation, I muse, but aren’t we all drowning in information? True it is that information begets knowledge. But in my later years I have learned that knowledge, for all the overload, has its limitations. 


My mind races back to the Naga Parochial School years where our teachers incorporated story telling into our learning process in a world sans tv, sans i-pods or any mechanical device, and where the only teaching devices were the textbook, the drop down chart and the blackboard. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this “lack,” it allowed us to make full use of our imagination, thanks to our teachers’ storytelling skills.


I wonder if we can get back to appreciating the power of myth and rise above the tyranny of social media by preferring imagination over knowledge. For after all -- and after this afternoon’s storybook experience --  was it not Albert Einstein himself who declared: “imagination is more important than knowledge”?

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