I got to discussing the Search for the Hildebrand Cemetery with my memoir class at the Westside Senior Center yesterday. Our topic was the value of considering our stories from other people’s perspectives, and I used this as an example.
I am twelve. My older brother Andy is directing a massive search for a lost relic of family history: the Hildebrand Cemetery. This is hugely boring to me but I go along because no one offers me a choice.
The cemetery holds graves from my mother’s side of the family. She comes from farm people whose land disappeared when the Salamonie River was dammed to create a reservoir. Legend has it the family graveyard was on a little knoll and might have survived the flooding—but no one alive remembers quite where it lay. The landscape was so altered by the new lake that everyone is disoriented. My brother has an obsessive interest in genealogy and he has decided we are going to find that cemetery.
Every weekend for months, or is it years? — we have been driving around northeastern Indiana near that reservoir, stopping at farms, knocking on doors, asking if people remember anything about a cemetery. I find this absolutely mortifying. Just as unbearable is the search if they give us permission to go on their land.
We fan out through cornfields and pastures, dodge cow pies and raspberry cane, crush mosquitoes and brush sweat from our eyes, summer day after summer day.
And finally, crowning a small rise, one of us spots a bit of rusty wrought-iron fence where it has no reason to be. Inside the fence a patch of woods holds the cornfields at bay; tips of two tall white pines poke above the canopy. We follow the line of fence, pushing through tangled weeds. We find a gate sagging on its hinges. On the other side the weeds give way to low grass and leaf-rubble.
And there it is—a fallen tombstone. We have found the Hildebrand Cemetery. Even I, in my self-pitying self-involvement, feel the thrill. The pines we spotted were planted on either side of my great-grandfather Henry Hildebrand’s grave in the most prominent position, facing the little gate. Down the slope is a beautiful view out over the new reservoir. We spend an hour or more poking through the underbrush, and find a few more family headstones,
We will make trips back to the cemetery frequently, bringing supplies and tools for cleaning and repairing the grave markers. Next spring we’ll come back on Memorial Day and raise a flag over Henry Hildebrand’s grave, honoring his service in the Civil War.
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Now consider how my brother would tell the story–a heroic search for the remnants of a significant past. Or my mother–thrilled that her first son had taken such an interest in her family’s history. My father–I can’t even imagine what he thought of all this time taken away from his favorite pursuits–fishing and talking. Even I, some 40 years later, wouldn’t trade the memory of that search for anything. It tells me so much about who we were, that family, pursuing our quirky quest.
p.s. We learned recently that an Eagle Scout on a farm nearby has taken up
maintaining our little family cemetery as part of his community service. A sign has been erected. The cemetery is now much easier to find and is easily accessible.