Treading on our roots

Big brother was in from Oregon for a few weeks, traveling solo this time and giving my sister-in-law the luxury of watching the entire Olympics without any unwelcomed comments, even if it meant tending to his garden and his dog during his absence.

Naturally a visit meant mingling with the aunts, uncles and cousins, first for a picnic featuring corn picked just that morning and tomatoes that are the juicy essence of summer. There were folks over for a piece of homemade peach pie, the crust made the way our grandmothers and their mothers did it — with lard, thank you very much — and on another afternoon, fishing on the lake in a cousin’s boat, not caring if you caught anything or not.

But, just as my brother’s visit included a reunion with living relatives, being the genealogy buff that he is, we also went with him on tours of cemeteries, walking among the stones trying to locate the final resting place of a great-great-grandfather or other long-gone family members. 

To me, cemeteries aren’t the creepy places associated with horror films rather they are more like parks. We walked upon grounds shaded by large oak trees, the grass neatly clipped and marigolds and geraniums blooming near the headstones. Birds sang from the trees and there was a peacefulness you can’t always find these days. Other cemeteries we visited were miles from any town, situated in the corner of a farm field, or next to beautiful old churches.

Thanks to Internet sites like, plus his research at courthouses and historical societies, my brother can easily ascertain a grave location, but sometimes it comes down to simply walking up and down the rows, squinting at weathered stones that are barely readable. Finding the one you’re looking for brings the same satisfaction as solving a puzzle and, being new to this game, I took special pride in locating the stone we were seeking while my brother was off in an opposite corner searching.

Since our ancestors were mostly work-from-dawn-to-dusk farmers, with a few carpenters and maybe some store keepers added to the mix, we confined our sleuthing to the small, plain markers rather than the showy ones with their carved angels and flowing verses. Speaking of epitaphs, my brother said his is going to read: “See, I told you I was sick.”

Sometimes there are church sextons or cemetery association secretaries around who can lend a hand in a search. At one cemetery containing more than 4,000 graves, the man in charge fortunately had it all mapped out in pencil on a paper window shade, of all things. Shaking his head, he said, “I’ve got to get this thing up to date before I die myself.”

In addition to the tranquil beauty of cemeteries, there is also the potential for imagining what our ancestors endured and enjoyed. Did they have dreams unfulfilled, or were they more than content with how life played out? Was the person buried next to them really the love of their life? Did they have a sense of humor? 

A stone that chronicles how one relative lost all her children and her husband within a few weeks — presumably from influenza — made me wonder what it must have been like facing that tragedy until she herself was buried many decades later.

I once heard in a eulogy that the most important part of a person’s life is the dash between his or her birth date and death date — that’s where life actually happened. I thought about that as I strolled among the stones, noticing the bees flitting among the flowers and how the sunlight slanted through the trees.

I also noticed something else — that most of my relatives had lived into their 80s, even during a time of lesser life spans, making me think I must come from pretty sturdy stock, making me think that maybe a little bit of lard in a pie crust isn’t such a bad thing after all.

—Nancy Luse is a freelance writer living in Frederick, Md., and can be reached at

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