There are few things that connect you with your past more than visiting a cemetery. This is particularly true when you visit one with others in your family.
My mother is struggling with her memory, to the point that she has lost much of her independence and ability to navigate life. We speak frequently on the telephone, and I make the sixty mile (each way) trip to visit her as frequently as I can. She does not, however, get out much.
So when she told me that she would really like to visit the cemetery where most of her family is buried, my sister and I were happy to rearrange our schedules and make a day of it. Which was necessary, since she lives nearly two hundred miles from the place.
It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm for November. Our conversations tended to re-plow the furrows from a few minutes earlier. She loves learning again (and again) what her grandchildren are up to. These topics are sweet but sad, because she seems unable to keep this information accessible for more than a few minutes.
My mother grew up on a farm in northwest Ohio. She was born during the depths of the Great Depression, and remembers the days when her father farmed with a team of horses and came home to a house lit with candles and oil lamps.
She was a young girl during the Second World War when news came from the big radio set in the living room and she was always eager to hear news from her uncle, a physician who had volunteered to treat the wounded in the European theater. By then, farming was done with a Ford tractor and a wagon hitched to the back of a 1935 Ford sedan. Mom was driving both of them from about the age of twelve. She and her two sisters learned a work ethic and a sense of family that are not nearly so common now.
As we drove through the small town where Mom went to high school and headed back into the country, Mom surprised us. She has not, it turns out, lost her ability to navigate that seven mile route that had practically defined the known world during her youth. More than once, I was either preparing to make a wrong turn or failing to make a correct one when she would pipe up from the back seat to let me know where I needed to go. And she was right, every time.
This cemetery was already a hundred years old when I was in kindergarten. Many of the old grave markers were the soft limestone kind, which become extremely difficult to read a century later.
I had been to this cemetery a few times before, most memorably when my own grandma died in the late 1970s. I knew that it was literally shouting distance away from the old farmstead where Mom grew up. It is one thing to go to such places as a teen or in your early twenties. I had other things on my mind then and was content to let the “adults” talk and reminisce. It is something entirely different when you have to help keep a frail old woman steady as she remembers the people memorialized here. Now I found that this stuff mattered.
People I only knew from old black and white snapshots were still alive in her mind. Her grandparents are buried here, as are her parents and many others from their little farming community. Over and over she would look at a grave marker and recall these people who she had known in her youth, explaining to my sister and I who they were related to and how she had known them.
I got a renewed appreciation for her youthful world. As an adult, the scale of this world is so much smaller than it probably was for her then. The farmhouse where she grew up was right across the road. This was the place where her father hand-dug their first septic tank and which did not get electricity until 1939 – when Mom was six years old.
I never got to see the inside of the old farm house. My grandfather died about a year before my parents got married, and Grandma moved to a small house in town around the time I was born. But it still stands, and is looking pretty good. Mom remembers the red building in the foreground as her father’s machine shed. I am told that he missed his calling as an inventor, so that little workshop would have probably been one of his favorite places to spend time.
The white barn and other outbuildings were still there as well, and in pretty good repair. This is something that is becoming less and less common in the rural midwest as wooden buildings made obsolete by modern agriculture are allowed to fall into heaps of decay.
The old general store, long abandoned, was only a quarter mile down the road. Mom remembered walking or riding her bike there to pick up this or that so that her mother could make dinner. That was also likely the place where she was first exposed to the Milky Way candy bars and Coca Colas that she still loves.
My mother still has a pretty good grasp of the old stories from her youth, although she is starting to mix up some of the details now. And it was both happy and sad to watch her face as she remembered people and happenings of long ago, from a world foreign to most of us today.
This was a trip that was good for both of us. I am a visual person, so my mind tends to create pictures when I listen to someone tell a story, the more details the better. This trip helped me to fill in a lot of blanks so the next time I hear some of these stories the backdrop will be more realistic. And of course it was good for Mom too so that she could get get back to her roots, if only for a little while.
The saddest thing of all is that she has lost the memories of this day altogether by now. I guess the job my sister and I will share is to try to rekindle those memories by reminding her of our trip that beautiful fall day and to encourage her to remember the people and places that played such a large part in that time of her life. Mom is in a stage that is really challenging for her, and difficult in a different way for the rest of us in the family. This trip, however, took away the strains of our troubled present and let us relax in the soothing surroundings of the past. If only temporarily.