Thursday, June 7, 2012

Old Cemeteries


Fields green up, trees leaf out, and the road beckons--time for a little road trip.  Nothing beats a spring day in Kansas for a cross-country tour.  While cruising, I scan the horizon, my eyes seeking unusual architecture, landforms, or interesting old cemeteries.  This region always rewards me.  I will undoubtedly find a tumbling stone house or barn, some wind or water-formed landscape, or an old cemetery surrounded by aging cedars, an old fence, or sometimes just a fenced off section of pasture.

            These old cemeteries intrigue me, both the ones set off in a pasture or those on a hill overlooking dwindling Kansas towns.  Often times lilac bushes or cedars surround them, and one wonders what happened to the folks who planted them.  A casual glance reveals no local town sites or farmsteads that might explain these old resting places.  If I dug out an old map of the region, I would find some reference to a community no longer in existence.  These cemeteries remind me of the hopes and dreams of those who came to settle and populate the plains.  Instead, those folks simply became a part of the plains.  Someone cared enough to set their little plots off with trees and bushes that distinguished their resting place from the vastness of the prairie.

            Generations of our family lie on a hill overlooking the Arkansas River outside of Ford, Kansas.  Even as a little girl, I found a mystery and a peace when I joined my grandparents on their treks to care for the graves of their loved ones.  I loved traveling up the old, sandy road to the entrance gate.  Prairie grasses waved on one side and wheat often waved on the other.  At the same time, my eyes could follow the railroad tracks leading out of Ford, and I could count the elevators lining the tracks.  

            Once at the entrance, we passed through a natural archway of cedars and wild rose bushes.  It was a portal to a different world for me.  Once on the hill overlooking the Arkansas our grandfather would tell us of his childhood on that river.

He swam, fished, skated, trapped, and hunted down there.  It sounded like heaven to our little city-kid ears.  Grandpa confided he had once skated all the way to Dodge and got back just at dark.  What an adventure!  We had to get permission to ride our bikes to a  shopping mall only blocks from our home.

A feeling of freedom permeated the place.  Obviously it was quiet.  Only meadowlark songs and wind soughing through the grasses around the graves and the elms planted around the outside border of the cemetery interrupted our thoughts.  If we got close enough to the pump house or storage shed, we could hear the creaking and stirring of tall, old cedars surrounding those small buildings. 
Occasionally we spotted a ground squirrel to chase and once followed one to its home under a headstone.  This chase led to our next treasure, a sloughed off snakeskin.  Childhood adventure could not get better than that. 

In this cemetery prairie and civilization met.  Buffalo grass carpeted the entire enclosure with a few stands of blue stem interrupting here and there.  Wild flowers appeared unpredictably, changing color and form with the season.   Multi-colored asters, prickly poppy, poppy mallow, and gaillardia were among the flowers I recognized.  In addition, what appeared to be a form of wild snapdragon bloomed profusely among the tombstones.

With varied luck, some families attempted plantings of irises and peonies around the markers of their loved ones.  Some graves had profuse stands of domestic flowers while others areas of the cemetery were entirely native.  As a child, I found it interesting to find planted flowers on country hillside.

            As an adult, I find the native portions of the cemetery the most interesting.  Our family graves tend to be in the wilder, more native part of this country cemetery at the crest of the hill where most of the rainwater drains away.  It seems fitting that the loved ones who taught me to love this prairie rest in the more natural section of the cemetery. 

I continued the family tradition of taking my daughters to decorate the family graves.  Their grandmother and great-grandmother told them the same stories I heard as a little girl about wandering ancestors who found a home on the Arkansas River at a common place to ford the shallow water. There these newcomers began a lodging house and livery stable and ran a mercantile store.

In the town of Ford, we still find the old lodging house bordering the highway that runs through town.  The livery is gone and the mercantile has tumbled down.  What remains are the markers on the hill that tell the story of hopeful people in an undeveloped land. By visiting this hill, we celebrate their lives and dreams and tell their stories to our children and grandchildren.

Every time I spy one of these little cemeteries interrupting the prairie, I want to stop and read the stones.  I want to wander through the native grasses surrounding the markers.  What tales could these folks tell about dreams that flamed up and then died just as the towns disappeared from the landscape, letting the native grasses return to cover the plains.

These peaceful interruptions on the prairie are a little reminder that my visit here is not permanent.  The grasses and wind will be here long after I am gone.  Knowing this helps me put my time in perspective. Each moment is a gift, a fleeting gift.  These little journeys remind me to appreciate it.

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