Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Toast (or Two or Three) to Those Long Gone

It’s no secret that I love old cemeteries. After all, it was in a cemetery that I originally got the idea for my Pepper Martin mysteries. As to why I was in that cemetery in the first place . . . .well, like I said, I love ‘em. I love the history that’s evident in every inch of an old cemetery. I love the art, and the architecture, and the stories that automatically start spinning in my brain when I read names and dates on a family monument, or see a single, small marker set off from the rest and begin to wonder who and what and why.

So if I tell you I spent one day of my Memorial Day weekend in a cemetery, it should come as no surprise. But if I told you I have relatives who are not as enamored of cemeteries as I am who came along for the ride, cheese and crackers, long-dead ancestors, and oh yes, Bailey’s shots . . .

Ah, now we have a story!

It started last fall when some of my husband’s cousins, visiting from Montana, talked about getting a family reunion together for 2012. Usually not one to open my mouth without thinking, I opened my mouth without thinking. (This might have had something to do with the quantities of wine that were being consumed at the time.) "I," I announced, "will research family history."
And research I did. What I discovered along the way is that I love digging into family history, even a family that is mine only through marriage. So far, I’ve uncovered (figuratively speaking, of course!) David’s family back to the great-great grandparents who arrived from Germany in the 1840s. And this Memorial Day, I convinced the family to go visit them.

There were seven of us on the adventure. Seven. That’s me, my husband who tolerates my affinity for graveyards, and five others who (to coin a phrase) wouldn’t usually be caught dead in a cemetery. We began by visiting the cemetery where their grandfather, his first wife, and their great-grandparents are buried. To help things go smoother, I prepared family trees for everyone, and I was glad I did. It helped explain relationships and kept who was who straight, especially when we ran into (another turn of phrase, but since I write the Pepper Martin books, it’s important to make that clear), great-great uncles, aunts and other assorted relatives. We trimmed grass, left flags and potted marigolds, and drank a wee Bailey’s toast to all of them.

Then it was on to visit one set of great-great grandparents at Riverside Cemetery in Cleveland. Riverside is privately owned, a well-cared for and beautiful burying ground full of gorgeous trees and pristine paths. I’d called ahead and the nice lady at the office had a map all ready for us. Fortunately, Charles and Wilhemina Schwendeman were easy to find, buried close to a main cemetery road. Unfortunately, though Charles’s headstone was fine, Minnie’s (as the old family documents call her) had fallen over.

Enter my husband and his brother who managed to lift the old granite stone and get it back into place. A small kindness to do for a woman who traveled from Germany to Michigan in the 1850s, then came to Cleveland when her daughter married Bernard, one of the men whose graves we’d visited at the first cemetery. Another Bailey’s shot, more marigolds left at the graves, and we were on to our last stop.

These great-great grandparents are the ones who brought my husband’s name (and my children’s) to this country. They are buried at a city-owned cemetery tucked at the back of a residential neighborhood. Odds are, most of the people in the area don’t know the cemetery is even there. Too bad it hasn’t escaped the vandals.

Headstones are toppled and broken, section and grave numbers are nearly impossible to find. While the rest of my fellow explorers went off in one direction, I headed in another and following the cemetery map (it’s not very good), I found what we were looking for, the graves of Phillip and Katharina. He was born in 1816 and lived until 1901. Think of the changes he saw in his lifetime! Another toast, more flowers.

It was an amazing day, even those non-cemetery-lovers admitted it. Sure, we had plenty of laughs, a chance to chat, and our little cheese-and-crackers picnic. But we also had a chance to pay tribute to people who left their families, their homes and their native languages behind so they could come to this country and make new lives for themselves. That took a lot of guts, and I hope those marigolds let them know how much we appreciate it.

Next year, we do the Irish side of the family. No doubt there will be more Bailey’s involved!


Angie Fox said...

Wow, Casey. What a cool way to bring the family together (and convert those non-cemetery lovers - one step at a time).

How did you go about researching your husband's family tree? I've been wanting to look into the Foxes for awhile now, and am trying to figure out just how to get started.

Casey said...

I've found the best website by far is:

Lots of info there. You hear a lot about, and I've used it at the library, but so far, I'm not all that impressed. To start, write down what you know. You'll want birth, marriage and death dates for as many ancestors as you can come up with. Then just start filling in the blanks from there. I never thought I'd get hooked on genealogy, but hooked, I am! Fascinating stuff.

Sharon said...

how wonderful!! My paternal grandmother and her family are into the genealogy thing. Our ancestors were French Huguenots that came over in 1701 to Virginia (Richmond. Maybe one day I will learn about it all too :) Grandma did give me the family Bible (boy is that thing big!) that goes back to the 1800's. I need to fill in my children.

Casey said...

It is fascinating, isn't it, Sharon? I have a feeling my husband's family were Hugenots, too. That's my next project...finding them back in Europe.