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Page Two of Cemetery Chronicles

After leaving Mom in Arlington, Virginia, with her sister, Ben drove me to Baltimore, where I would visit Dads sister and her family while he went on north to Connecticut. We both admired the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, and so we decided to search out the Poe landmarks in Baltimore. By late afternoon, wed found the house where he lived his last days, but night overtook us as we started our search for the grave site.

Although a devoted sightseer and experienced driver, Ben lacked a good sense of direction. We wandered around a disreputable area of the city, for what seemed like hours, before finally finding the cemetery. We peered through a tall wrought-iron fence that surrounded the grave and, in the dim light, read the inscription on the tombstone. The setting lent an appropriate melancholy to our viewing of that ill-fated but gifted writers place of rest.

We also stopped in Washington on that trip to visit Fords Theater and the house across the street where Abraham Lincoln died. Of the theater we saw only the forlorn lobby, as renovations to the building wouldnt begin for another ten years. It seems strange now to realize that we visited those historic buildings less than 100 years after the assassination.

We admired Lincoln because of family stories told to us about our paternal grandfathers boyhood during the Civil War. He grew up in northeastern Missouri, a border state where neighbors fought neighbors over the secession and slavery issues. Like Lincoln, Grandfather Cullison taught himself to read and write as a teenager and read the law under the tutelage of a lawyer, as was the custom then. His father, a northern sympathizer, acted as a scout during the war. On dark nights he sent our grandfather, then a boy of thirteen, by horseback to deliver messages to Union officers, telling him to eat the message if caught by the enemy.

Years after our visit to Fords Theater, Ben searched for traces of that era near the now-vanished village of Paulville. He discovered the intact grave site of our great grandfather who died just as the Civil War ended, having exhausted all his physical and material resources in support of the Union cause. His epitaph read: As I am now so you will be, prepare for death and follow me.

Not all graves of the 19th Century have survived for future generations to ponder. A decade ago, my sons and I explored the ghost town of Aurora, Nevada, where my mothers maternal great grandfathers life ended. He had been killed, in a dispute over a silver mining claim, in 1862. We found the few rotting timbers and crumbling concrete walls that remained of the town and an old cemetery overlooking the site. Some of the grave stones had been repaired, but we failed to find the wooden cross that marked our ancestors bones.

The gravesite of the matriarch of my maternal grandfathers family enjoyed a better fate. She came with her sons from Germany to homestead farmland in eastern Nebraska, in 1870, and died thirteen years later. Buried on family-owned land, along with two of her grandchildren, the graves had been all but forgotten. When I first saw the disintegrating gravestones, they were hidden by weeds beside a country road. Now relatives who still live in the area have restored the markers and take turns mowing the weeds so these graves wont be forgotten.

As a young woman, I had the good fortune to accompany my father and his life-long friend on a walk through our hometown cemetery. The warm summer evening, with the sun casting long shadows behind the grave stones, made me feel that life might never end, even though the location insisted otherwise. We meandered first among the family plots, pausing before the large granite stone that commemorates a cousin who died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II.

As we moved on to the older section of the cemetery, I listened while the two men reminisced about the people theyd known as little boys, in a town far different from the one I knew. We passed the grave of a man had been a blacksmith, and they spoke of another who ran the livery stable. In those days, horses and buggies traveled streets paved with bricks, families kept chickens in backyard coops for eggs and meat and large gardens provided vegetables and fruits that housewives canned for winter sustenance.

Hearing Dad and his friend talk about the people theyd known in those long ago days, I realized that the lives depicted in the Spoon River poems embody universal stories that continue being lived by each new generation. Each cemetery represents a chronicle of tales, each one unique but also familiar.

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© 2009 Margaret Cullison for

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