I’ve written a lot about my parents and me putting flowers out on relatives’ graves a few times a year and how much I love the old cemeteries. So peaceful and quiet, full of nature – old oak trees and acorns with squirrels running around all over the place, beautiful flowers and shrubs like azaleas and rhododendron, and the sounds of birds chirping and singing on a spring day……and lots of memories and reminiscing. Now it’s just my mom and me taking the flowers, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because of my dad’s death, but I’m starting to want to learn more about my relatives that are buried there, the ones I knew well and the ones I didn’t know so well or maybe not at all.So, I’ve started working on my family tree. I never knew my dad’s extended family much at all, so it has been an interesting journey but also finding out things about relatives I was more familiar with, too. It’s the personal stories that mean a lot to me, and the old photographs, not just names and dates on a family tree. My family is full of Sarahs and Franks and Charlies and Margarets…..not another Sharon in the bunch, and some good southern men’s names like Pinkney and Berry and Asbury and Carlton. I found a picture of my grandfather (mom’s dad) laughing and wish so much I had known him – he was killed in an accident a few months before I was born. How would my life be different if I’d had a grandpa to be close to? I knew my dad’s father but not well. I was one of many grandchildren and didn’t visit him much. My cousin Billie was shot and killed when he was just a boy by another boy when they were playing Russian Roulette. My mom saw him dying. I knew there were lots of teachers and even college presidents but found some doctors, too. My great-great-great grandmother and great-great-great grandfather were born in Northern Ireland – must explain my deep visceral connection to things Irish and Celtic, but I’ve never seen their picture and doubt I ever will. Their son, my great-great grandfather, and one of his brothers were shoemakers and owned their own shoe store – that explains a lot in terms of my daughters and me and our love of shoes galore! One great-great aunt had her front teeth shot out! I have to wonder how in the world did that happen? A lot of my family settled in these western North Carolina mountains to farm the land. They worked hard and seldom traveled far from home. I’m kind of like them in a way, a bit of a homebody, even though I don’t work the land in such a physical way as they did. Many of their descendants still live in these beautiful hills and valleys.
I found out that one of my great-grandpas was a handsome devil, in every picture dressed in a fine suit and two-tone shoes, quite the lady’s man, and in reality he left his wife and about ten kids and ran off to Florida and never came back. My mom remembers him and can tell me some personal things about him, great-grandma, and the aunts and uncles. Lots of the men served in the World Wars and the Civil War. My grandmother that I was close to loved to write (I didn’t know that when she was alive – I wish I had) and kept photo books and scrapbooks, old and falling apart now, but even Easter and Christmas cards she and my grandpa gave each other back in the 1930s and 1940s. I consider myself fortunate to have a lot of these things to hold and look at to help me know them better. Sometimes I’ve run into a brick wall trying to find out something, and it’s kind of frustrating. I want to know what happened to Uncle Frank….I was so close to him as a child, or how did one of my great-great grandpas end up dying way out in Washington state? I have to accept that some things may remain a mystery.
Now I’m traipsing around different cemeteries these days to see where some of these direct ancestors were laid to rest, to feel some different connection to them than just a name on a paper. In the process, I’ve gotten in touch with a cousin I vaguely knew about and never met and the husband of another older cousin that I never knew of at all. I hope to connect with more relatives in the process. The family tree is old, and if you’re lucky you can trace it back a long way, but it’s also a living, breathing, present reality, too, with living cousins and aunts and uncles and in-laws and nieces and nephews that are interesting in their own right, right here and now.
This journey makes me mindful of how I live my own life and how I express myself for others who are interested to know and find later. I hope they read some of the things I’ve written about nature and everyday life and see photographs I’ve taken of this beautiful neck of the woods my family has called home for generations. But mostly I want them to come to know what I have, that when it comes down to it, family just means so much and helps make us who we are.
Around here in the mountains where I live there’s a cemetery behind almost every little church, even way back in the hills. Some of them are pretty old and the stones hard to read. And of course there are the grander big cemeteries, some of them in the cities, with a few famous people buried in there, tourist attractions. I’m always mindful that the people buried there, related to me or not, and obviously mostly not, once walked this earth making a living, having families, connecting with the universe in their unique ways to leave their own legacy. Maybe some were more noble than others, I don’t know. I try to be respectful of all that. I know some people think it’s morbid, but I just don’t feel that way. Cemeteries bring me a sense of peace and connection. Oh yeah, I really do love the old cemeteries.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Raindrop Ridge Press