Visiting Family

As we walked through the cemetery, I made sure to take the time to stop and read as many names as I could. If present, I would repeat quietly the short inscription, often in verse, that adorned the stone, giving me some sense of the person and the loss felt by the family and friends. By now, those who had mourned the passing of these grandparents, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and children, would themselves have passed on long before the birth of any whom I would have met in my own life time. This was an old place.

The stones that draw me in the most are carved slate. For those who enjoy walking through old burial grounds in New England or for that matter, any of the thirteen original colonies, the slate stones are very special. Often found resting at awkward angles and appearing to be impossibly thin for their size, our colonial era forefathers preferred the stone as the markers for their loved ones. Later, they would change to marble and then on to granite, but nothing is quite as stately as slate to my mind. It also holds up far better than anything else I’ve ever seen.

The car trip we were on had been long and hot and though it’s a drive that normally takes me about two and half hours when I’m solo, with two small children involved and the need for lunch breaks and potty stops, we had managed to stretch it out to about four and a half thus far, and there was still an hour more driving time to go. When my wife noticed the farm stand coming up on the right, we decided to make just one more pit stop in the attempt to placate Short Stack and Lulu Belle with fresh produce and see if we couldn’t keep the peace during the last push to get our selves home.

As we pulled in to the dirt parking lot, my eyes went straight to the adjoining ancient cemetery. Carefully mown, tended and surrounded by what was obviously a home made but very well done, iron rail fence. The posts were fashioned from coulombs of granite of the type you’d expect to see used as hitching posts or pasture markers. Indeed, they might have been just that at one time. As soon as I had gotten the kids out of the car, the three of us headed right to the edge of the fence and then over it as Action Girl went in to look for provisions.

A lot of people find cemeteries to be creepy or sad and if they don’t actively avoid them, they tend not to see them at all. They just seem to skip by on their radar. Me, I’m a history junkie. Worse than that, I’m a hopeless romantic of a history junkie. I love graveyards and feel not only comfortable in them, but actually happy and safe there. It’s not a giddy kind of happy that an archeologist might feel when they find something significant at a dig, but more of a, “being amongst friends” kind of happy. Looking at the names on the stones, everyone there looks to be kind and calm to me. The foibles of errant emotions and untold past arguments and unkindness are swept away by inscribed words like, “Mother” and, “Only Son.” In rest, they are all good people, dearly missed.

Short Stack and Lulu Belle love places like this as well. Since they have been able to walk, I’ve brought them to one of our local graveyards for some run around time. As I expected, they immediately headed off among the grave markers, voices squeaking and crouching down to hide. Short Stack, being an older, wiser three years old to Lulu Belle’s year and half, knows the rules for places like this. Running and playing is encouraged while showing the graves respect is necessary. He has at least the idea that each one represents a person in some fashion and even if he can’t completely wrap his mind around it yet, he does know that there are names written on them and will ask who they are. Lulu Belle is more into following him around and giggling at his antics rather than finding out who’s buried where.

The stones here go way back and the slate is still well defined and the names easy to read. This particular cemetery has been in use by the same families since the seventeen hundreds, all the way through to modern times and the stone types show the progression of the centuries. Sadly, as is often the case, the marble is nearly unreadable having stood up poorly to the increasing acids in our atmosphere and the salt spray from the nearby highway. This stone, favored by the people of the eighteen hundreds, simply melts away and a hundred years worth of family names disappears into the grass beneath our feet. Still, it’s a beautiful place and since the grounds are so well kept, I’m hopeful that someone knows who is resting here.

lydia littlefield

Action Girl’s return draws the kids to her like a magnet and strawberries are handed out to happy effect. We spend a few more minutes among the stones and enjoy our road side snack while we remark on the beautiful condition of this place as the kids meander about scarfing down double handfuls of berries, coloring their faces and hands with the warm juices. I notice happily that not a single stone on its back in the grass and that the bottom of each stone is unmarred by careless lawn equipment. Everything is as it should be and the names read like an unfamiliar family album. The Littlefield’s look to have started this plot and then the Grey’s were introduced and then the Winns. Other names begin as the stones get newer and the inscriptions act as lines on a family tree, announcing marriages, births and deaths, some even giving us bits of personal stories about those who are at our feet. I even find a stone with my daughter’s somewhat uncommon name on it. 1877 to 1977, she lived. Not a bad run by any account. If my little girl were old enough to understand, I would happily point it out to her. We walk along, putting this mostly unknown piece of our country’s history together with the names we find and I think about how spots like this are some of my favorite places to be. It’s quite wonderful, really.

The last leg of the trip is uneventful and the kids only squawk lightly about having to get back into a steamy, hot car. With the air conditioning on full blast, we continue on down the road. We’d be home soon after just one more stop to visit a party and be with some seldom seen family, including my children’s own Great Grandfather. It was interesting to be at the gathering after having looked into the past of another’s family and it helped me enjoy my self even more.

Some day, naturally, we shall all be gone. My hope is that at some point a young family might walk by my own clean, dark stone and read my name. Who knows, perhaps they will know me and will sit in the hot August sun for a while whilst they feast on fresh berries and enjoy the day. Who could ask for more?

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12 Responses

  1. I’m liking this post a lot. I’m glad I’m not the only one who takes the time to go around and read the names and dates. the ones that always get me are the infant graves. where they have just “infant” and no name. or only one date on it because they died the same day they were born. Over here, on the military base, they have a section of graves in the woods that they faced away from the east (rising son) these people were POW’s and they were deemed not worthy to be buried in the direction of the rising son. I just thought that was so interesting.

    • There’s actually a picture I have from that afternoon where Lulu Belle is just behind a stone marked, “Little Elva. Age 7 months, 22 days.” It always makes me stop and thank God for the children I have and their health.

      The west facing graves you talk about are really interesting! I’m familiar with the old graveyard layouts where all the stones faced and though it has become normal to see stones facing in all sorts of cardinal directions, you can always spot the old stones in the back looking east. Some even have the image of the rising sun right on them. Who were these POW’s? What nationality and war? Just curious.

      -TP

  2. These were German POWs held here at Fort Leavenworth Kansas. Many were hung in an elevator shaft at the prison here on base. There are a lot of stories about their ghostly screams being heard still today at this abandoned prison.

    • WOW! There’s a story! I’ve been meaning to do a ghost story but think I’ll save that until October! These must have been more than just regular POW’s to have been hung. I’m just surprised that it happened here in the States rather than in at the Hague. I wonder what the deal was with that?

      Here in New England, German POW’s have a very different story. We had several BIG camps here up in the mountains during the war and the prisoners generally were well thought of. One camp in New Hampshire didn’t even have a locked fence. The camp commander simply told them, “Where will you go? Stay here and get fed and stay warm until the war is over.” It worked. At the end of WWII, many of the former POW’s elected to stay here and married into the community. We still have a number of German vets from WWII who live near the camps where they were held.

      -TP

  3. I’ll do some more research on it and send you a link.

    I’m glad your Germans were treated well.

  4. here’s your link to the story we were discussing. It’s pretty long but well worth the read.

    http://www.ftlvnhistsoc.org/German_POW_executions.htm

  5. That willow on the stone you have pictured is characteristic of stones of the period. If you want some more info on the various tombstone art of New England I would suggest a book called, “In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life” by James Deetz. It was one of my favorite texts when I was in college and working as an archaeologist part time. He talks a lot about tombstone art in one of the chapters and the willow motiff is a central theme.

    • Thanks for the book title, Mike! I’ll take a look for it. I love the old stones and we have some really amazing ones here. The willow and urn are pretty common here but we have some really grim ones too. A few skulls and even some skulls with wings. I’ll do a “grave yard” post when we get closer to October! I’d have to say that my personal favorites are the ones with the hand simply pointing up. I always found that poignant and has never failed to make me smile.

      If you and your family make it up to our neck of the woods, I’ll happily take you on a tour of the best grave yards in my part of Maine!

      -TP

      • The book also mentions the ones with the skulls and the ones with the wings. You can date the stones pretty closely just by looking at the art on them.

        We’ll be in NH next summer (back to Three Mile). I’m hoping to schedule a side-trip into Maine but it depends on the kids. They have a minor obsession with going up to Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont.

        Hey Mike!
        Glad to hear it! If we can work out some time at the range, it would be a hoot! My gun safe it open to you. You pick the long arm and we’ll go have some fun! If not, Maybe we can just get the families together in Wolfboro for some relaxed fun by the lake. I know a great little campground the my family and I could stay at and make an outing of it! I understand the allure of B&J’s. My wife is from central VT and pretty much grew up on the stuff. I’d have a hard time passing it up too!
        -TP

  6. I like graveyards: it’s one of the only physical reminders of those who have come, lived, and left before us.
    The graveyard attracts me in a fly in the light sort of way: I know I’ll be there someday, but not yet!

    Personally, I don’t want to be a marker in a field. I’d rather just fertilize some anonymous plant in peace.
    I came, I went, I enjoyed: that’s enough.

    • That’s my Father-in-law’s opinion as well. Me? I think I’ll have a stone. Not so much because I feel like I need to leave a note that I was here as much as I can’t resist writing something that someone else might like to read! It’s not every day you get your words carved in stone!

      -TP

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