Gravestones

Posted by on Jul 3, 2006 in Dad, Death and renewal | 0 comments

My father never had much curiosity about his dead relatives, but he traipsed around the graveyards of rural Kentucky with me, helping me in my search. I often wonder why his normal inquisitiveness was lacking in this area. It may have been because of the early death of his father and the ambiguous relationship he had with his mother’s relatives. Most likely it was because he was a self made man, and not drawn to disturbing sleeping dogs. Though an avid reader with a keen interest in the events of the day and the natural environment, he saw the world in broad strokes, not getting caught up in the details of scholarly explorations. The more compelling question is probably why I find family history intriguing. I guess a secret wish that I might have some kings or horse thieves in my distant past could be part of it, but I think it’s probably my natural curiosity, or what my kids refer to as nosiness. I certainly sought out the city lights as soon as I was able to fly from the nest. I landed in Virginia, ironically the very location where my ancestors first lived in America. It was here I learned the information that brought me to an overgrown cemetery one hot summer morning years ago.

Since my Dad’s father had died when he was 13 we knew little about his side of the family. I was proud to be able to tell him the names of his grandparents, Albert and Roxanne Crume, and identify a picture of a handsome man in a strange theatrical pose as the grandfather he had never known. That day we learned the tale of Albert’s first wife, a story of scandal and tragedy repeated with obvious relish by a distant cousin. Albert Marion Crume married first Elizabeth Ross, in May of 1859, when she was 20 and he 21. They came to live on his family farm, probably in the house with his parents, as families were prone to do in that time. Albert and Elizabeth had four sons in the next eight years, and while I have no idea what their marriage was like, I have seen the farm where they lived, still isolated in the rural countryside, and imagine it was a hard and monotonous life. From the appearance of her great grandchildren I believe she was a beautiful woman, and that she attracted the eye of many men. I don’t know if it was a whim, or lust, or the grinding routine of days that caused her to leave Albert, but the exact words of the gossip state that she, “left the babies in the bed and ran off with a drummer”.

Before you make the assumption that she was a groupie for a rock band, let me relate that a drummer made his living driving a sort of general store on wheels. With towns so widely spaced and travel difficult and time consuming, it was common for one of these wagons to pull into a neighborhood a few times a year, the driver beating on a pot or kettle to announce he was open for business, thus the title “drummer”. When Elizabeth climbed into his wagon that day I know she must have had mixed emotions. If she had known her fate was sealed and her children would be forever marked by her actions, I wonder if it would have stopped her. I do know she did not find what she was looking for, and that she was deeply remorseful after a short time. She returned home hoping for a second chance, only to find her husband unforgiving, her children strangers. With the scorn of her family and the community she must have lost her will to live, or perhaps it was just the cold December of 1870 that put her in an unmarked grave at the age of 31.

Roxanne Renfrow, born in February of 1845, became Albert’s second wife. They married in December of 1873 when she was almost 29, an old maid by the standards of the day. She became the instant mom of four children and quickly produced four of her own, Edward in October of 1874, Alva, my grandfather, in October of1875, Victoria, in February of 1877, and Florence, sometime in 1879. Perhaps exhausted by childbearing and the hard farm life, Roxanne died in January of 1880 the month after her sixth wedding anniversary and a month before her thirty fifth birthday. She was not put up on the hill in the Crume family graveyard, but taken to the more sacred ground of the Baptist church in Richlands. Albert, married twice, was laid to rest alone on that green hill on the family farm only six years later, leaving his 8 orphaned children in the care of his 72 year old father. His oldest child was 20 and the youngest 7 when he died at age 48. I stood beside his stone and read the oddly inapt words inscribed, evidently copied from some book of best tombstone homilies:

Ere sin could weigh or sorrow fade
Death came with friendly care,
The opening bud to heaven conveyed,
And bade it blossom there

His father, William Washington is intured on the same lovely hill. He lived another 10 years, long enough to see all the children to their majority. The same tombstone writer must have still been in business, because his slightly more appropriate inscription reads:

Dearest father we will try
To meet you happy when we die
Trusting it will be our lot
That we shall never be forgot

His sons are all buried on that ridge, overlooking their life’s work. My Dad has fond memories of visiting what he called “Uncle Jake’s farm” as a teenager and swimming in the large natural pool, spring fed, cold and sweet on summer days. He talked about those fleeting happy times with nostalgia when we walked the grounds that Saturday afternoon. Following the lead I had, we then drove to the Richlands church to find Roxanne, the grandmother whose name he had never heard till that week. It was a daunting task considering the size and condition of the plot. We faced a field of weeds with a few vine covered stones standing almost recognizable here and there. Luck was with us, for within a half hour’s time I had located it, broken and lying face down. It read:

She was a kind and affectionate wife, a fond mother and a friend to all.

I was touched by the honest and emotional words and shaken to think that this was all my father would ever know about his grandmother. Dad and I did not forget the day we spent, not only because of the poignant discovery, but because we took with us a large sampling of the larvae of the harvest mite, Trombicula alfreddugesi, commonly know as chiggers. We both had a miserable week with hundreds of red itching spots covering our bodies. Dad quietly had someone sent to clean out the weed patch and restore the abandoned cemetery.

I had to leave the next morning, but unencumbered by husband or children on this trip, I stopped in Bardstown Kentucky so I could explore the Poplar Flats cemetery, purported to hold the mortal remains of Albert’s grandfather, William T Crume. There, in the still dew covered field, I found his stone, born in May of 1783 and died in 1812 at the unexpected age of 29. I know from my research that when William died, his brother Ralph took responsibility for his wife and 4 orphaned children, all under the age of 6. They remained in his care after their Mom remarried some years later. I’m sure there’s a story there that I will never know, but a point of interest I did learn is that Ralph was married to Mary Lincoln, sister to Abraham’s father Thomas. That is as close as I have come to finding famous ancestors. Ralph was a generous man who loaned Thomas Lincoln a wagon and team to take his new wife and her furniture to Indiana after Abe’s mother died.

I though of them as I walked; the dim whispers of their ghosts darting between the grey stones in the still cool July morning. Toward the back of the lot, along the fencerow, I discovered briars heavy with sweet wild blackberries. Already beginning to feel itchy with the bounty of the last graveyard, I picked and ate the ripe offerings of another. Even though I have decided to be cremated, I am glad that my relations, in the pre computer age, choose to have markers set for their loved ones. It has provided me with accurate historical information, and a link to the past that I find compelling. As I strolled the tranquil spot at my favorite time of day, I felt in touch with that history, tangible and understandable, not merely words on a page. Their life is my story too, and like my more recent relations, they were good, bad, and many shades of grey, but they were most of all the real human family that I am forever connected with, for better or worse.

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