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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Veteran in a Foreign Land

There is a cemetery just over the Massachusetts line, coming from southern New Hampshire. As old graveyards go, it’s pretty standard fare for an old New England town. The stones are mostly slate, cool and a dark silver-blue.

Many years ago, a good friend of mine took me there on an overcast Veteran’s Day to see something unusual. Something easily over looked by the casual observer. As we walked out onto the mown grass, dotted with brown and crunchy leaves, we stepped carefully along the rows of stone and loss. Here and there, a place was left empty in the lines of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Places where the markers had fallen to the earth and been swallowed up by the passing of time. As is usual in these places, little flags flew at the foot of many of the stones. Men who had joined up to fight for their country in its many hours of need. The small banners of red white and blue fluttered silently in the early November breeze.

I looked with some interest at the various inscriptions to see where and when these brave souls served. Some had been in the War of 1812; some white marble stones showed the resting places of those who had gone to fight against the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Several were veterans of the Revolution of 1776. The original American Patriots.

As we rounded a row of leaning stones, a small flag caught my eye. My friend was already standing there looking down and reading the inscription. Here lay the mortal remains of a man who had served his country and died while in its service. He had not been killed in action but must have succumbed from an accident or illness. The stone told us little more than his name, rank, age and unit he served with. The diminutive Union Jack fluttered proudly. Here lay a junior officer of the Royal British Army, having passed away in a land far from home and his roots. He had died in 1772, a loyal subject of his Majesty, the King of England.

british

With his hour of passing, this man had missed so much suffering and conflict that was to come. Where he would have wound up, is pure speculation. Would he have been true to his station and employ? Would he have fought the Rebels with his all or, like many who had lived here among the colonists for so long, would he have defected from the ranks and become a quiet farmer with land of his own to plow? Who is to know?

What was left is a tastefully decorated slate, leaning with time and a small British flag placed by those whom he would never know. It flies among the flags of a country that he would never live to see emerge. Today is Veteran’s Day and today, I shall remember him. Though his name has slipped my mental grasp, I’ll imagine him walking happily along on a sunny day, long, long ago. Down a cart path and into the village he would go, thinking how full of marvel and opportunity this new land was.

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