I first visited the grave of the American poet Sylvia Plath in 1986. I was 25 years old at the time and curious to see the village of Heptonstall where she is buried. Since then I have made regular trips to Plath’s grave, sometimes while attending events nearby and sometimes in combination with a day’s walking through the ancient hills and wooded valleys of West Yorkshire.
When I make a special visit it is usually on 11th February, the date of Plath’s death, or on her birthday on 27th October. Today’s date has other resonances for me; Dylan Thomas shares Plath’s birthday and a friend’s daughter would have been 21 today. Making the trip to Heptonstall at this time of year has become an act of meditation as well as thanksgiving; after the difficulties of recent months, I decided that visiting today was exactly what I needed.
The first time I visited I couldn’t find the grave. After searching among headstones all morning I gave up and went to the pub. I asked some locals if they could direct me but they couldn’t help. There wasn’t the interest in Plath there is now and few people visited the village to look for her grave. You could try the new field, they shouted after me as I left.
Eventually, after working through row after row of stones, I found Plath’s grave. It was unmarked; just a mound of earth with a yellow rose growing in the centre and cobbles marking the edge. In my memory a small piece of wood (like a lollipop stick) with ‘Sylvia Plath’ inked on was stuck in the earth, but I may be imagining this. I have a photograph somewhere.
I remember thinking to myself that I needed to find a way of recording the grave’s position so that if I visited again I would be able to find it. So I used the trees at the edge of the field like coordinates: seven trees south by three trees east. The other thing I remember is that there was a bee buzzing around the yellow rose; you could never, I said to the boyfriend I was with, have set the stage more perfectly.
Plath’s grave had been left unmarked during the 80s because as fast as Ted Hughes (her husband) erected the head stone, ‘feminist activists’ defaced it, scratching out the ‘Hughes’ part of her name. There was lengthy correspondence about it in The Observer at the time; the situation became unpleasant with accusations flying between the Hughes family and those who claimed to be ‘rescuing’ Plath. At some point, however, the dispute fizzled out and a re-erected headstone, bearing both family names, has stood for years, unspoiled.
During these years, however, there have been what some might consider new spoilings. As the grave became a place of pilgrimage, it collected a multitude of leavings: artificial flowers and plastic pots, stacks of pens and writing paraphernalia, torn pages and bus tickets, money and fairies, feathers and religious icons, shells and conkers and stones and photographs. New plantings were made: shrubs and alpines did well in the high air, others bloomed there temporarily. The yellow rose held fast through all of this but one year, when I visited, it was gone.
I think it must have been the summer of 2011, or maybe Spring 2012, when my friend and I decided to make a trip to the valley, for her daughter and for Plath. I was full of the pain of my own daughter that day; troubled and hurt by her absence, I fretted and worried. In Heptonstall that morning I became upset by the state of Plath’s grave. It was terrible, I told my friend; I couldn’t bear it. How awful that no one looked after it now. How I missed the simplicity of the yellow rose. And then, like a storm, I swooped on it, sweeping plastic pens and artificial flowers into a bag which I dumped by the bin at the entrance to the field. I didn’t stop to think about or notice what I was doing; it was as if I were possessed.
Later, I told the man I was dating at the time what I had done. He gently pointed out that it was not my place to clear such things away; that they had been left there because they were meaningful to someone, if not to me. That the act of homage took a variety of forms and a gift of a plastic pen, or train ticket, was as valid as my attempt to preserve the yellow rose and the bee. Also, he said, he had met an anthropologist recently who was studying Plath’s grave as a site of posthumous impact. You’ve just ruined her data, he told me.
When I went to Heptonstall today (for the first time since I ‘tidied up’) it was with this same man. Although we are no longer dating we have remained friends. Not only this (and this is where I bring autism into today’s post for I haven’t forgotten the focus of my blog entirely) he is one of Dylan’s trustees. I appointed trustees for Dylan a couple of years ago when I made a will; such an approach, I was advised by my solicitor, was the best way of ensuring Dylan’s interests would be protected after my death. A clairvoyant once told me that I’ve never been very good at picking men but this man is clearly the exception who proves the rule; as Dylan’s mother, I can think of no greater role to entrust someone with.
Dylan’s other trustee is the girlfriend I was with when I cleared Plath’s grave that day. These two very dear people are thus charged with a task I hope they will never be needed for; to administer my affairs, in the event of my death, fairly between my children and to the benefit and well-being of them both. Dylan’s trustees don’t know each other but I know that, if required, they would work together fairly, wisely and pragmatically, in line with my wishes.
I had a surprise encounter today at Plath’s graveside; the sort of meeting which I think must surely have been meant, in the way that life sometimes feels too uncanny not to have been planned. Because I could so easily not have been there at the same time as her, or not been there with my friend, without whom the conversation might not have happened. But it did so happen that when my friend and I got to Plath’s grave today the anthropologist was there.
I didn’t know of course, as we approached the grave, that it was the person whose data I had destroyed a few years ago. ‘I think we should hang back and let that person have a private moment’, I said to my friend, thinking the woman was paying her respects. My friend, however, had recognised her. He tried to signal to me but I am far too straightforward to understand such things. So when the anthropologist greeted me I responded and we started to chat. Before I realised who she was I had confessed my crime.
Only when the anthropologist described the devastation she had felt when she had arrived at the grave that morning to find it cleared did I realise the significance of what I had done. Happily, she was forgiving; we went for lunch together and I promised to send her the photographs I’ve taken of Plath’s grave over the last 30 years. Thus I will offer some historic data to replace the contemporary data I destroyed. In revealing myself, I helped the anthropologist to complete the story of the missing artefacts. The encounter with the anthropologist, meanwhile, reminded me that as well as changing her story, I am part of it.
On my way home this evening I called to collect Dylan; I am planning to take him out tomorrow for a mid-week treat. While I was there, for the first time since July when Dylan moved to residential care, I encountered another family. I was surprised and reassured by this; I’d started to wonder why I’d never seen other parents at the home.
Afterwards I got to thinking about how difficult these things are for us to consider: what happens after we are gone and what helps people to cope with loss. This can feel particularly difficult as the parent of a disabled child or adult. I wondered if I should update the trustee arrangements I have made for Dylan now that he has moved to care. But then I thought about the plastic pots and torn pages and gaudy flowers on Plath’s grave today; these are the things which help people, it seems, and which we cannot control or plan for.
The photographs were taken at Plath’s grave in Heptonstall today. The action shots of my confession were taken by my friend.