Thursday, June 30, 2011

Missing Mizzou

Photo by Ginger Collins-Justus

One week ago I landed in St. Louis at 4:30p.m. and by 8:00p.m. I was standing in a small family cemetery in Robertsville, watching lightning bugs dance just above the recently mown grass and listening to Marc Houseman tell me the tragic tale of the Finney family. People in California often chuckle when I tell them that I spend a great deal of my time while visiting Missouri just wandering around old graveyards. Mostly, they think I’m kidding. I understand why; most of our graveyards here are simply expansive acres of grass, with perhaps a tree planted here or there. We have little of the sense of place and history that folks in the mid-west, who’ve often lived their entire lives in the same town, do. I still remember my first visit to Missouri, driving down the highway with my mother in a small rental car and seeing a ‘real’ cemetery with above ground monuments. I pulled over, jumped out, and ran to look at headstones, snapping pictures right and left. There were birth and death dates in the 1800’s. Imagine that! Mom remained in the car, nonplussed at the diversion from our course. There was nothing novel there for her, having been raised on a farm in Missouri. But I could have spent hours just reading the names and epitaphs on the headstones, immersed in the imagined history of the deceased.

When I travel to cemeteries with Marc, I often don’t have to imagine the history; he is a walking directory of “Here lies…” information, and can often tell me what the person did for a living, what family members are still in the community, and other details which honor the life of the departed. On this trip, I also had the privilege of wandering through several cemeteries and a mausoleum with Ginger Justus, who is working on, among other projects, the restoration of the Oak Grove Mausoleum in St. Louis. Like Marc, Ginger is devoted to the preservation of the history and beauty connected to places of burial, and she, too, is a fount of information. It is her photo that graces the top of my blog today.

On this trip to MO, I also met Betty Green, a fan of Tainted Legacy and a woman with a contagiously youthful spirit and vigor. Betty lives in Catawissa, the small town where my great-grandmother lived, back in the country by the Meramec River, where cardinals and other birds exotic to California flit around her outdoor feeders. Betty was gracious enough to invite me for a visit, and I had a great time chatting with her and her husband, Jim, who is an actual veteran of the Battle of the Bulge (and co-author of a book about it).

And I met Cody Jones, a young man who has grown up not with privileges but with courage. His story was inspiring. (He told it to me, in a self-effacing way, as we enjoyed pizza together at the Pizza Hut in Pacific.) Cody and I share a similar connection in that we are both still hopeful that “the right one” will come along someday, and I asked permission to adopt Cody’s mantra of “I’d rather be alone than wish that I were.” Amen, my young friend, amen.

I also had lunch with Brenda Wiesehan and toured the Pacific Plaza Antique Mall where she works. She has arranged to carry copies of Tainted Legacy in the store, so there will be an outlet in Pacific for them on a regular basis.

On my last night in Missouri, I spoke about Bertha Gifford at the Scenic Regional Library in Union. A great and gracious crowd gathered. One gentleman was kind enough to mention that his grandfather had worked for the Giffords at one time and ate many a meal at their table—and lived a long and healthy life, apparently. Another woman spoke up to say proudly that her father had been on the grand jury which indicted my great-grandmother. Amazing….

In our frenetic lifestyles here in Cali, we tend to overlook the fact that there are stories everywhere. Returning to Missouri every year gives me the opportunity to slow down—way down—and simply listen to some of them… or imagine them from the spare lines on tombstones.

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