Friday, June 03, 2005


This post is a few days too late, but I only just now got around to getting it posted. Our local columnist, Cindy Lange-Kubick began a blog over at the Lincoln Journal Star, our local newspaper that for the most part is horrible, but they try (sometimes). Cindy is the bright spot amongst them, and her post for Memorial Day was a dandy. I've walked through many a pioneer cemetery while researching my family roots, and it strikes me that in those days you could go to one or two spots, and see an entire branch of a tree all buried close by. Today we all travel far from home, and with divorce and non-traditional families, those days seem long gone. The saddest sights for me are the graves of the wee ones. The infant mortality rate was staggering, and I cannot imagine the sorrow of the plains. My own great-grandparents lost their first eight children before the last four children all survived. My grandfather, at age 93 and taken by Alzheimer's, is the last of that group.

I suppose most of us think of Memorial Day as the bookend of a long weekend and the start of summer, especially if we haven't lost anyone close to our hearts.

I started to appreciate the holiday more in the years since I've worked covering Memorial Day events. If you've never heard a soldier recite "In Flanders Fields" you're missing something. I'm also struck, the older I get, by the rituals of my parents and their peers...the trips to the old cemeteries to remember the long gone generations. One year I went with them to the little Lutheran cemeteries to hear the stories of their grandparents and lost aunts and uncles. I don't know if my generation has the same sense of duty.

Friday afternoon my mother fills the trunk with flowers. Store-bought chrysanthemums and daisies on sturdy plastic stems, made in China.

My father drives. I ride along.

For years I've meant to take this journey.

In his family, my father is the last Lange. My granny and popo died years ago; my Aunt Darlene, his only sister, in 1986. I visit their graves in Lincoln. And we take flowers, and our children, to honor their paternal grand-father, great-aunts and uncles, Jill and Michael, the children of friends who died one snowy morning in 1983 ...But I've never made this trip to the country.

"When I'm gone you'll need to know where to go to put the flowers," my dad always said.

And now I know.

I know to head out of town on Highway 34 and turn right at the Garland corner, to stop first at Zion Lutheran Cemetery. To walk past Koentopf and Hering and Petrie. Past the Neitzel children -- Emma, Albert, Otto, Robert, Karl, August -- remembered together on four sides of fading marble, to the grave of August Matthes, my paternal great-grandfather, who I never met, who my father never met.

He was crushed by a bull in 1919, my father says, standing tall in crab grass and clover.

We feel the headstone with our fingers, trace the words: Jesu Christi des Sohnes Gottes macht uns rein von allen Sunden. Amen. Jesus Christ the son of God, makes us pure from all our sins. Amen.

Birds are singing in the pine trees and the cottonwoods rustle. My mother plants the plastic flowers. We get in the car and drive, passing windmills and chicken coops and bare wood barns leaning in the prairie wind, to the J & B Steakhouse in downtown Garland for a bathroom break. My father buys a bag of Doritos because it isn't polite to flush someone's toilet for nothing.

We eat the chips on a quick tour of town. Look over here, my father says. This was his cousin's bungalow, this an uncle's place, this Grandma Matthes' square gray house, the oversized black roof towering above the siding like a too big hat.

He points across the street where a row of trailers sit. "This used to be all trees. We'd spend all day in there climbing them -- all day."

My father is 64. He says this like he can't quite believe it's true. We turn around and hit gravel, drive past the baseball fields and a herd of sleepy cows to our next stop -- the Germantown Cemetery.

Ground squirrels have taken over and a blue bird perches on the point of the graveyard's high iron fence. We walk. A damp dishrag of sky shakes itself.

We pass a chipped rocking horse over a smooth headstone: "Son Jimmy." We pass Ellen, wife of Hans. Died April 17, 1890. And a baby, "Son of Hans and Ellen," Died September 9, 1890. 4 months, 23 days. We do the math and think about how sad it is, first the mother, then her baby. We stop. Here are graves of my Granny's three bachelor brothers. Walter, who traded in junk metal. Fred, who lost his leg to diabetes. Herman, who hung himself in the shed behind the home place.

They are buried next to their mother, my great-grandmother, my father's plump German grandmother, Ida Matthes. My mother plants the plastic flowers. Four sturdy bouquets that will never fade.

We drive back, past the cows, the ballfield, turn toward the highway. I write down the directions, as I am easily lost. Remember to turn left at Main Street, my father says. "That way you can avoid the downtown traffic." We laugh. My father is a boy on Friday. He remembers trips to Lincoln on the train from his home in Malcolm.

"There was a puddle-jumper that ran back and forth."

He remembers those bachelor uncles and overnights with his grandmother. And on Friday, in those stories, I discover a family I never knew ...

One more stop. This time we head east on 34, take the first left past the Malcolm turn. My father points. "This is where my parents lived." The house is gone. We arrive at St. Paul's Lutheran Cemetery, old and half empty, as if suddenly folks stopped dying.

Two peony bushes hang heavy with blossoms big as softballs and smelling like a hug at my grandmother's bosom. Like home.

Carl and Wilhelmine Lange are buried here. His grandmother died before he was born, my dad says. But, he knew his grandfather well. "He was a great guy. A real gentleman."

"Like popo and your dad," my mom adds.

The sky shakes itself again. We shiver. My mother plants the last plastic flowers.

Granny Lange was religious about Memorial Day, my parents say as we head home. She would load the car with peonies and iris, lilacs too, if they lasted this long, and decorate the graves of her parents, her many brothers, uncles and aunts. When she died, my father said, he promised he would take over the task.

And one day, because I am my father's daughter and because I know the way, I will pack my trunk with daisies and chrysanthemums, made in China, or coffee cans filled with ant-covered peonies and do the same. It will be my duty. And my pleasure.


At 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

:-) Nice articles, both hers and yours.

I remember Memorial Day cemetery visits far too well--being admonished not to step on graves, then praying silently for each of those loved ones of ours; no doubt my uncle also prayed for all those who bore little flags atop their markers, as his grave now bears.

In those days, my grandmother's and uncle's and mother's faces were too scarily unreadable; my cousin and I hadn't known these people, and we hoped no one would cry, because we wouldn't know what to do, wouldn't dare to exhale 'til we got home. Death was too mysterious, and a real enemy. My grandmother's husband had drowned at 42 on her birthday; she cried every year.

My cousin's mother, this same uncle's beloved wife, had died at 20 when my cousin was only 6 months old. My uncle never so much as dated another woman.. this was his woman, the one for whom he'd been born, who'd died quite unexpectedly in bed beside him.. When his brother died at 42 from his liver bursting as he sat on a bar stool (his brother -- not an ambulance -- carried him to the hospital), and after we heard my widowed uncle wailing at the funeral home, it seems we never went back to the cemetery.. for any reason. But I think he did.

And suddenly one odd day, my cousin and I were the ones to lead little ones to the cemetery. She moved away many years ago, tho', and now I'm keeper of the graves; of all of them, except hers and mine.

RIP, beloved folks. We hardly knew ye.


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