Last Saturday, I was combing the backroads of northwest Mississippi, looking for worthy photographs. This is the land of the Mississippi River Delta, and it is flat, low, fertile earth nourished over the years by the floodwaters of the Big Muddy. It is the land of King Cotton. It was once the land of slavery and unspeakable suffering. It is the land over which southern and northern troops moved during the Civil War. It is a land that bears the marks of its history in the still wide gap between black and white.
As I approached an intersection of two country roads, I spotted a roadside memorial to Yolanda, who died tragically in an automobile accident. Like most of us, I have seen many such roadside memorials, especially in the American Southwest where they are known as descansos, "resting places," and can be traced back to the centuries-old, Hispanic-American practice of marking the landscape with memorials wherever weary pallbearers briefly set down the casket on their long walking journey to the burial site.
I know virtually nothing about Yolanda, except that she died too young and died tragically on this little patch of flat and fertile land that has already known too much suffering in American history. I was moved by the austerity and simplicity of this handmade marker. The little angel figurine at the base of the cross has begun to dissolve and crumble in the elements. And with time, storms, and winds, the paint will fade and the wooden cross will fall over and disappear into the soil.
RIP Yolanda is someone's protest against private grief. It is a stubborn refusal to confine grief to the church, cemetery, or home. In a North American culture that denies death and often covers over its tragedy with embalming fluid, makeup, and tidy, otherworldly religion, RIP Yolanda takes us to the public place of senseless tragedy, the place where a particular young life was lost in a patch of dark Delta dirt. Set against the flat, wide, almost horizonless expanse is this place of particularized loss and grief, so poignant and intimate it goes only by a first name. Here is a public commingling of memory, sorrow, and warning to others traveling these isolated roads. If there is genuine redemption in this place, we struggle to find it.
What troubles us about RIP Yolanda is the lack of information surrounding it. We want to fill in the gaps, weaving together a possible biography and coherent account from a million loose threads of obscure clues and gross generalizations snatched up in a quick drive through of the nearby town. We speculate about the cause of the accident that killed her. We wonder if she or another party was to blame. We imagine speeding, drunk, sleepy, or preoccupied drivers. We want to sort out the sheep and the goats, the virtuous from the villains. We long for a morality tale that will provide an ersatz redemption for the whole damned thing. But none is given.
In the end, RIP Yolanda sets a question mark against all the easy exclamation points that punctuate our morality tales. And paradoxically, that may well be what redeems the tragedy, freeing Yolanda and us from easy answers, religious bromides, and morality tales too good to be true. Perhaps then, and only then, can we say with the ancient Hebrew writer, "Though God slay me, yet I live."