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Remembering the Dead

May 21st, 2013 at 5:59 pm

 

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

cemetery-sm

 

REMEMBERING THE DEAD

The cemetery was my playground.

While Dad mowed, my 6-year-old self blew fluff off of dandelions. I traced the engraving on stones, and I climbed into the arms of a cedar tree and watched ants scatter as I peeled its hairy bark.

Among his many jobs, my late father served for years as the sexton of the Pawnee Rock Township Cemetery. A windy hill, just north of the city limits, was where we kept the town’s departed.

This was the family business. Dad rode the mower while Mom and my brother Leon and I trimmed the buffalo grass near the stones with hand clippers. I worked in the cemetery each year until I left for college in 1977.

The names on the stones built a community, a community that had relocated from town and nearby farms to this place on the hill.

When I was a child, the carved names were merely names. But now, many of the newer stones represent people I once knew.

Under the shadow of cedars toward the cemetery’s north end lies Harry Lewis, a bachelor, retired from the U.S. Railway Postal Service. He kept to himself mostly, didn’t speak to kids, and he wore a city man’s hat.

One Halloween, my friends and I dared ourselves to trick-or-treat at Harry Lewis’ home, doubting he’d open his door, afraid that he would. Harry answered, then stepped away into the darkness of his house. He returned with foil-wrapped cylinders, peeled back the aluminum and handed us each a nickel.

My third grade teacher, Mildred Dunavan, rests on the east side of the cemetery. When I got my first car, a 1973 Plymouth Valiant, I named the car Mildred in her honor.

Aunt Julietha and Uncle Herman are on the west side, neighbors to U.S. Sen. George McGill, a 1930s Democrat, perhaps the most famous of the residents here.

Another grave nearby is Carole Mead, the mother of my friend Karla. Carole drove me to the Larned hospital the day I broke my arm during an eighth grade mishap. She always had a grin and a punch line. With Carole gone, the world is missing a bit of its orneriness.

Stones from the late 1800s, speckled white-yellow-green with lichens, huddle near the graveyard’s entrance on the south side. One of my great-great-grandfathers is buried here under a narrow, vertical stone with an inscription “Born in Russia.”

Memorial Day is the big day in the cemetery world. For weeks in advance, we spent long days perfecting the acreage, trimming tree limbs, cutting grass, hoping to add beauty and order to the emotion of remembrance.

Several days before the holiday, while we did the final touch-up work, the pebble-covered roads filled with Chevrolets and Fords and Buicks.

Visitors left bouquets of white and pink peonies in coffee cans, weighted with sand and water. Crosses made of red plastic carnations marked graves like exclamation points. Daisies in Hellman’s Mayonnaise jars held steady in the wind with wire cut from clothes hangers, one end bent over the lip of the glass, the other end speared into the soil.

A visitor might place his hand on top of a headstone, a pause before he turned toward his car. We would look away, ashamed to have intruded on a private moment.

By Memorial Day, the cemetery danced with life and color. Small American flags flapped over the graves of military veterans.

About a week later, we returned for the cleanup. We plucked the Folders cans, poured the sand and water, now thick and green, onto the roadway. We tossed the cans and browned peonies into the bed of Dad’s truck. Plastic flowers were moved close to the stones where they wouldn’t be caught by the mower.

Lives pass. Memorial Day comes and goes.

A story, a bond, a kindness: these things remain.

Originally Published May 2003.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh

columns, Kansans, life on the ground, small towns

  1. May 21st, 2013 at 18:19 | #1

    What a beautiful piece. You’ve really brought out the lives of the dead.

  2. May 21st, 2013 at 18:21 | #2

    This? My favorite thing you’ve written. I feel this one in my heart.

  3. Nicki
    May 21st, 2013 at 20:43 | #3

    Your words carry such powerful emotions and touch my heart. Thank you.

  4. May 21st, 2013 at 21:21 | #4

    Thank you so much, Diana, Mary, and Nicki!

  5. roger
    May 22nd, 2013 at 17:33 | #5

    This was one of your best, Cheryl. Hope it makes it into a future book.

  6. May 23rd, 2013 at 11:20 | #6

    Cheryl, could you explain how a city man’s hat looks?

  7. May 23rd, 2013 at 11:28 | #7

    Thanks, Roger! I hope so too.

  8. May 23rd, 2013 at 11:31 | #8

    Good question, JP.

    A farmer’s or cowboy’s hat might look like this – a summer straw hat.
    http://www.123rf.com/photo_11648222_old-west-farmer-straw-hat-and-gloves-on-a-sisal-ranching-rope-on-hay-covered-wood-floor-in-a-dusty-a.html

    Or a farmer might wear a ballcap with the logo of a seed company. http://www.ebay.com/itm/DEKALB-AG-FEED-SEED-FARMERS-FULL-SUMMER-MESH-FIELD-BASEBALL-CAP-GIFT-NEW-/330908480154

    But a city man’s hat would be more refined, something like this perhaps. http://www.hats-plus.com/t-mens-hats.aspx

  9. Flips
    May 23rd, 2013 at 16:36 | #9

    WHERE WAS I ON TUES???? I missed this— & one of your bests– loved it!!!

  10. May 23rd, 2013 at 19:31 | #10

    Short, brief, epigrammatic. Reminds me of Edgar Lee Master’s SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY. Visiting my mother Amy’s and grandparent Larkin’s graves in Memorial Lawn/Maplewood Cemetery, I’ve often had the same nostalgic, lonesome, heartache feelings for those I once knew and loved so much. Emporia has grown way out past the cemetery and the flagpole where Memorial Day was recognized when I was a kid by the VFW, GAR & DAR. The Civil War dead not far away, but gone like the old Emporia County Courthouse. The streets of Emporia lined with Chase County quarry limestone, the sidewalks, the bridges, the church foundations, the little Athens of the Midwest college town… slowly but surely becoming a ghost town like so many other small Kansas towns. Perhaps someday some writer like Masters will write about all of us in his own version of NEOSHO/COTTONWOOD RIVER ANTHOLOGY? Voices from the past…

  11. May 24th, 2013 at 11:06 | #11

    Thank you Cheryl for the information.
    While in the fields there is nothing as good as a hat to keep the sun (and rain) away from your head.
    At the moment I do use a Wigens but intend to get me one with a more wider brim.

  12. Angie
    May 28th, 2013 at 16:41 | #12

    Since I’m not much of a crier….I didn’t expect to finish this story with tears in my eyes!! I loved it! And it makes me think twice about the mean old Staggie family who were the Sextons of my local cemetery that my mom and her besties and then later me and my besties played in. They had a big job to do!
    Thanks for this one Cheryl!