Sunday, June 1, 2014

Memorial Day Memories—Learning Family Stories Around Headstones

Peonies blooming, flags flying from light posts, and alumni celebrations signal Memorial Day’s arrival. For some families it’s time to camp at the lake or picnic in the backyard. No matter what I do to celebrate this holiday, this last weekend in May is a reminder of trips to the family cemetery and lessons learned about long dead ancestors.

Just saying Memorial Day brings back memories of Grandma Lottie lugging her store of floral arrangements up from her basement. She’d lay them all over her back porch and examine them for wear and tear--no worn out arrangements for her deceased loved ones. Then she’d make certain each had appropriate metal clothes hangers clipped in two to anchor them into Southwest Kansas soil until it was time to retrieve them for another year.

After she’d inspected and repaired her wreathes and bouquets, she’d relegate them to boxes destined for particular cemeteries where deceased relatives rested. By the time she and grandpa finished, the trunk was full and the journey ready to begin.

I’d find my place in the backseat of their Mercury and we’d hit that asphalt ribbon guiding us toward Dodge, Jetmore, and Ford. I loved sitting behind them, listening to their reminiscences of people I never met. 

During these drives over green prairies, I learned about a family branch that immigrated to northwest Kansas in the early 1870s. Once there, several families homesteaded and formed the little community of Devizes, named after their hometown in Canada. One of these great greats was a Methodist Circuit rider who served rural residents living in dugouts along Beaver and Sappa Creeks. After the Cheyenne Breakout in 1878, he buried some settlers killed in that incident.

I always wondered if his tiny wife, daughter of a ship captain on the Great Lakes, saw the similarity between waves on huge bodies of water and the ripples of wind moving prairie grasses in rolling surges. I know she saw the grass because she hid her children in it when she heard Indians traveled near their homestead.

Another side of the family moved first from Kentucky to Indiana and then to Kansas as their families expanded and they needed more resources to support them. We have photos of their homestead, livery stable, general merchandise store, and boarding house in Ford, where they settled. By the time I came along, I realized I’d only see that family name engraved on headstones at the cemetery. We descended from the female side, and that great grandma’s name changed when she married into the Canadian branch I mentioned earlier.

At each gravesite, Grandma and Grandpa continued sharing tales of those who rested beneath our feet. Though I’d hardly met a single soul resting in those hallowed plots, I thought I knew them personally. I learned what they drove, whether it was wagon or a Model T. I learned who their children were and what they served at family dinners.

Through these annual narratives, I understood what it took to survive and thrive in a land that nature designed to suit nomads. Looking back, I’m sure these pilgrimages with my grandparents triggered my love for this prairie that brought me home to Kansas.

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