The Missouri foothills have been both the home and final resting place for my family going back seven generations. Along about the 1850s Thomas Ryerson was the first in the line to settle in the Oak Hill community to try and pull a living out of hardscrabble ground. He married a Souders girl, and others who followed him provided the family names woven into our history. Not that you’d be so inclined, but you’d be hard pressed to find a map with Oak Hill on it as the town has been all but defunct for at least the last couple of these generations.
The old bank and few other buildings still stand, but it takes a discerning eye and even a reliable guide to get you back to what’s left of the town, and the few squatters there probably like it that way. A visit there is best assayed in daylight. It’s still largely a rural area and the cemeteries typically don’t bear fancy, aspirational names suggesting peace and eternity. Many are named after the original farmstead where the cemetery is located and some may be named for a community now as dead as those who are buried in its namesake. Significant numbers of my ancestors rest in the Oak Hill cemetery or at the Mounts farm.
My maternal grandfather used to take me out to Oak Hill when I was a boy to walk among the stones and tell me stories about the people he knew there. Most of these I’ve forgotten, but I’ve always remembered the headstone of a girl named Bonnie because she had been about my age (at the time of my first visit) when she died in the early 40s in an automobile accident. Her headstone featured a black and white photo of a blonde girl. Eight years ago my grandfather finally caught up with his friends and family and we brought him back to Oak Hill at the head of a procession that was so long that at one point I looked back and could see the road running across three hilltops and every car in sight was part of the cortege.
Memorial Day weekend and I’m back in the family stomping grounds so I offer to take my grandmother, who will be 89 this June, out to Mounts to visit her mother’s grave and to Oak Hill. Like my grandfather before me I also bring along a youngster, my 11-year-old daughter.
North of town and knowing what to look for we take the rough, narrow road out to Mounts, crossing a couple of no-railing concrete wash bridges until we came to the small sign and the turn to the wide gate of metal bars, which I lift and swing open so we can drive through. At this point the path is merely two gravelled strips, axle-width apart, through the grass and we follow it for about an eighth of a mile to the cemetery. The grounds themselves are about an acre in size and tidy with a newer chain link fence around the outside. The gate to this fence has a U-shaped collar to keep it closed, but someone has also added a couple of twists of heavy-gauge wire around the collar as well. Grammy has taken my arm for the walk across the uneven ground, but I disengage briefly to undo the wire.
“Do you think that’s there to keep people out or to keep them in?” I ask her.
“Keep ’em in, I expect,” she says.
She carries two bouquets of silk flowers, one is for her mother and father’s headstone. Her father died in 1934 and her mother in 1984. Next to them the second bouquet goes to stones for two of her sisters. One was only a year old when she died of the flu in 1922; the other was 10 when she died in 1924. More than 80 years later Grammy still leaves flowers, perhaps to show that someone still remembers their short lives, or to acknowledge the life she was able to live that they never knew, or both. She doesn’t need the small trowel I brought along to push the plastic stems into the ground.
Two other sisters and one brother are still alive, even the “baby” now in her 70s. When they, too, are gone, will anyone else remember these long lost little ones? There are flowers at several of the other graves today, but many others that date back as far as the 1820s or as “recently” as the 1920s are bare.
Grammy points out other family members nearby, and as we walk through the grounds she notes stones for older generations. In a couple of places we stop and scrape lichen off the lettering on the weathered monuments in order to better read the dates. My daughter is interested but pensive. I suggest to her that if any of these people had not been born then she herself might not be here either.
We walk back to the car and I twist the wire around the gate again. “Just in case,” I say.
We go back to the main road and head a few miles further north before taking the turn-off to Oak Hill. This cemetery is larger than Mounts, and on a wider and more travelled road, but it is still quiet and isolated. The gate has already been thrown open for the day’s visitors but there are only a couple of other people on the grounds, standing across the way by a headstone with their flowers and their own thoughts.
We walk down the family row, past Bonnie (my daughter takes a long look) and my grandfather’s brothers. Grammy had been out earlier in the week with my mother and had placed large sunflower arrangements flanking my grandfather’s charcoal colored monument that also has her name and birthdate on it. We admire the burst of color the sunflowers bring and comment on how strangely complementary they are to the stone. I point out to my daughter the empty spaces to the right where my mother and father will be, and my uncle and his wife.
My daughter barely knew my grandfather, but has a memory of feeding him grapes as he sat in his wheelchair and popped open his mouth with a grin to receive each fruit from the little girl who had overcome her fear of the strange contraption. We have been reading his memoirs outloud lately, focusing on the adventures and misadventures of his childhood on these same hills. One of her favorite episodes is the tale of the slingshot and persimmon wars he fought with the other boys, and of the time in particular when he took aim at the seat of another boy’s pants as the lad climbed through a rail fence, only to have the boy’s pants and face trade positions while the missile was in flight, resulting in a faceful of overripe persimmon and a short period of adult mandated arms control.
Looking into the next row in front of us, my daughter sees the headstone of a man born just a few months before my grandfather, and of another man born two years later. Grammy confirms that both of these men grew up in Oak Hill and were well known to my grandfather. My daughter wonders if these men might have been boys involved in the long ago fracas and we agree that it’s quite possible. She grins and says, “Do you think they still talk about it, and argue over who started what and whose fault it was?” We agree that this, too, is possible.
I don’t ascribe mystical powers to this land, but I know the voices can still be heard here. It was a January when my grandfather died and as the procession wound its way out to Oak Hill the earth was wet in shades of black and brown and the words formed clearly in my head, “I came from this clay.” When I got home I picked up a pen and began to write what was given to me.
I came from this clay:
some of my earliest memories
are of rubbing handfuls of it between my fingers;
of bare toes wiggling in the wet morning grass,
of bare feet racing across the field
and up the dirt road,
loose overalls flapping
and my slingshot hung ‘round my neck.
The soil was hard, and rocky,
but you could sink your roots in it
and last a good long while.
There was something here
you could draw up from and survive;
maybe nothing more than just knowing
that this was where my people were,
where our blood and sweat had watered,
where we had flowered and brought forth fruit,
and where so many of us had returned to lie close together,
family and friends and neighbors:
Here I grew strong
and learned the ways of these hills;
learned where the water coursed,
and where the varmints could be found,
where the cattle liked to rest
and where the rabbits ran.
I know this place,
each ridge and rill,
like my father’s face
and my mother’s cooking,
like my sisters’ voices
and my brothers’ smell
and the feel of being home,
with my people.
Here I grew wise
and learned to see the shades
in people and things that other folks missed.
In time I traveled beyond these hills,
but never really shook the dust
of them off of my feet;
it was too ground in
and the call to return too strong until,
like the bear, I went to ground
for the winter season,
to live off the stores of memory
and to nourish the dreams of the future
that were taking shape around my people.
Here I grew old
and learned the sweetest
and hardest lessons,
and walked over this familiar ground,
my perspective as different as the shadows
cast by the tombstones first lit by the morning
and then by the evening sun.
Like me, tapering off.
I brought the young ones here,
hoping they could feel it through the ground,
and through their feet,
something, at least, of what I’d always felt,
standing on the shoulders of those
that came before me.
Foolish, I suppose;
no hill looks the same from the top
as it does when you’re still climbing,
and no light seems as abundant and never-
ending as that which lights the early days
that always pass so slowly.
All too soon the days pass,
no matter how hard we dig in our heels,
or work our fingers into the dirt
trying to leave our mark;
some sign beyond these stones.
I miss those that were here –
the land looks much the same,
but not the same, without their faces.
I know I can hear their voices
rising from the valley on a breeze
too sweet for January;
the sound of generations around the table
as I hurry at last from my chores,
racing up the familiar path
to be gathered to my people.