Saturday, May 21, 2005

So many graves, so little time

Back when my folks were growing up, let's say 1915-1933 or so, it was Decoration Day, not Memorial Day, and although set aside to honor the nation's war dead it had become a day to visit and place fresh flowers at the graves of any loved ones within convenient reach.

A good many cemeteries weren't maintained back in those days, so it also was a day to clean up the family lots before decoration commenced. My mother used to talk of her parents arising at dawn and after chores, sweeping through the flower beds to cut all blooms (peony, iris and more) that looked fresh, gathering up the gardening tools, rounding up the kids, then hitching up the old spring wagon, loading flowers, tools and children therein and heading for Columbia Cemetery, where the Browns and Clairs reposed.

Granddad Miller didn't always approve of change (and never spent what little money he had during those early years without careful thought: the internal combustion engine might be a passing fancy), so he still was traveling by horse and buggy during the mid-1920s, much to the embarrassment of my Aunt Mary I've been told.

I still have my grandparents' wonderful account books from the date of their marriage during 1904 forward: Every penny and every purchase, no matter how small, accounted for.

By the time I was growing up, we'd lurched into the 20th century and were driving cars. Cemeteries generally were maintained, but the prodedure remained roughly the same. Up at dawn, fill gravel-weighted Hi-C orange juice cans hoarded during the year with water and fresh flowers from the garden, pack the bouquets in boxes, load same into every available free space in the car and head for Salem, Oxford, Columbia and beyond sloshing water all the way. The trek to Columbia involved stopping at Granddad Miller's (now driving cars himself and a hazard to everyone else on the road because he still followed horse-and-buggy rules) to form a Columbia-bound caravan.

And it goes on still, although now that nearly everyone has disconcertingly died I generally carry on by myself with anyone else interested tagging along, in competition with cousin Esther Belle (Miller) Steinbach to see who can get to the most graves first.

Silk has replaced garden-fresh, I'm afraid, but my mother was a gardener on a grand scale and I'm not. I'd like to be, but time is lacking.

Over to Salem first (where my parents, alas, have joined the ancestors): Grandma and Grandpa, Irwin and Ethel (Dent) Myers and Aunt Flora Myers, bless her heart; Great-grandparents Daniel and Mary Belle (Redlingshafer) Myers; Great-great-grandparents, Jacob and Harriet (Dick) Myers; Great-great-great-grandmother, Doratha Redlingshafer; and an infinite variety of great-aunts, uncles and cousins. Flowers for everyone there, unless I run out.

A sidetrip to Waynick, where Great-great-grandmother Eliza Jane (Brown/Dent) Chynoweth reposes along with a few other kin. Into Chariton to visit John G. and Isabelle (Greer) Redlingshafer, more of my great-great-grandparents, and others from a dizzying number of family lines. This year there will be side trips to the graves of Demming J. Thayer and little Louise, reflecting a current Mallory obsession.

Then out to Oxford northeast of Chariton: Great-grandparents Joseph Cyrus and Mary Elizabeth (Clair) Miller, Great-great-grandparents Jeremiah and Elizabeth (McMulin) Miller, and more.

Now the longer drive down to Columbia: Grandparents William Ambrose and Jessie (Brown) Miller, Uncle Richard Miller, the much-loved Verna Brown, Great-uncle Joe Brown, Great-grandparents Joseph and Chloe (Boswell/Prentiss) Brown, Aunt Emma Prentiss, Aunt Laura (Prentiss) and Uncle Alpheus E. "Al" Love and their daughter, Alma; Great-great-great-grandmother Mary (Saunders) Clair and two lost Clair boys, Jasper Sylvester and William Richard. A Confederate flag for Nathan Love, Uncle Alepheus' father. And finally, down a twisting gravel road southeast to Great-great-great-grandfather William Clair, who died during 1852 before there was a Columbia Cemetery and thereby ended up all by himself in a hayfield alongside the road (I'm badly behind if Esther Belle has gotten here first).

Generally, I get to Corydon: Great-great-grandparents Peachy Gilmer and Caroline (McDaniel) Boswell and assorted Boswell kin. That usually means side trips out to Hogue (pretty place down a long lane above a big pond): Thomas and Jane (Boswell) Ratcliffe and George and America "Aunt Mec" (Boswell) Cox; a swing through Clio (cousin Dorothy Rosa Elson and her family plus a few Calbreath kin) and down across the state line to Cleopatra, Missouri, where all the rest of the Calbreaths and a couple of Browns rest at Wilder.

On a really good year, I'll get to Monroe County: Great-great-great-grandparents William and Miriam (Trescott) Miller and Joseph and Mary (Young) McMulin and many more; then down to Cincinnati in Appanoose County for more Browns and Boswells, although reaching the Boswell Cemetery there requires a long trek on foot across pasture land and through a creek, so that doesn't get done very often --- especially if the water's high.

If it's an exceptionally really good year, I'll cross the line into Missouri to the ghost town of Mendota, find the almost-hidden entrace to the cemetery lane, twist up the hill and visit the DeMacks, going through eternity holding on for dear life on that precipitous hillside to avoid sliding into the creek.

Whew! Why?

Well, I know all of these people. It's a mixed blessing for genealogists: Sometimes you know the dead better than you know the living; occasionally you like them better. I like to think of each and every one as a living, breathing soul as I poke a sprig of silk alongside his or her tombstone. We are, you know, the sum total of all who came before us, in more ways than one. It never hurts to pay homage to those from whom we've sprung.

Besides, I like to think I'm single-handedly supporting for a brief shining moment as Memorial Day nears the silk flower sweatshops spread across the Orient. "You know, there are children starving in China," Grandma used to say when I was pushing food around the plate rather than eating it --- and I believed.

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