Friday, June 1, 2012

Country Cemeteries

            Traditions tie us to our past and link us to our future.  As part of a long family tradition, I love this time of year when folks gather peonies and irises to decorate loved ones’ graves for Memorial Day.  I can hardly look at the peonies blooming around not think about meeting family and having picnics as part of this legacy of family history.

            The flowers and picnic gathering are only part of my enjoyment.  I also like the contact with the past and the continuity into the present. For whatever reason, my ancestors tended to settle western Kansas towns that tended to place the cemetery at the edge of town on a hill overlooking not only the community, but also the surrounding watershed valley.  Looking at the situation logically, I realize my ancestors were optimists who hoped the towns would do what Hays has done and grow.  However, the little communities my family members settled have seen better days and now the population in the cemetery is greater than that in the town.

            One drives south through Ford to find a sandy country road leading up the hill to the cemetery.  Unlike Jetmore where cedars dominate the hillside, once past the entrance  where there are a few stout trees standing, Ford has only a few struggling elms interspersed throughout the cemetery to provide shade over graves or to family members who like to walk among the headstones, remembering loved ones and their lives. 

            I think this is one of the reasons I like that prairie cemetery.  Once I stand on that hill, I imagine I can see the elevators in Dodge to the north and west. But mostly I see empty prairie and river bottomland. Bucklin’s elevators to the south and east post faint shadows on the plains, but that could be my imagination because I know the elevators are there.

 For miles and miles I see Arkansas River basin land where my grandfather skated, hunted, and fished as boy. He said he could skate from Ford to Dodge and back in a day.  On that hill, I can imagine all the hopes and dreams those ancestors of mine brought to these plains.

When I turn around to look north and west, I can see what remains of Ford, the town my grandmother came to as bride from the mountains of Colorado.  I see the tall roof of the boarding house where my great-greats ran a boarding house and a livery stable.  Now it is some family’s home on the main street of Ford.  The livery barn out back no longer exists.

            Upon visiting the cemetery with our grandparents when we were children, they would walk us up and down the lanes of headstones pointing out this ancestor and then another and tell the stories of these hardy pioneers’ lives on this land.

 I learned in those moments with my grandparents to love this prairie and those people who first came here. I learned to notice the native buffalo grass and prairie wildflowers that changed with the seasons on that hill.  I knew the first time I stood there I would always love that view of prairie where it is bisected by the Arkansas.  Only recently, I learned it was a stopping place along the Santa Fe Trail.

This cemetery is manicured only for Memorial Day.  Any other time of year and  this cemetery is much like the prairie grasses around it with a few domestic blooms interrupting the native scenery.  I like that about this final resting place.  These people came with their hopes to this new land.  I like to think the land changed them more than they changed the land and here in their final resting places, one can stand on a hill looking miles in any direction and get a good idea of what they saw when they first came.

We recently buried the grandmother who introduced me to the stories of the generations buried in this cemetery.  I found a sense of peace knowing future generations would stand on this hill to decorate her grave and tell their children her stories as well as the stories of those who went before her.  Our stories and the land will go on just as the prairie wind will blow waves of native grasses.   


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