Several times this week I’ve walked on a high, windy hill a few miles north of my ranch, smiling and talking to people no one else could have seen, if anyone else had been there.
I was alone with our community’s dead.
Hello, Mary. I remember you so well. You would walk into the schoolyard, a tiny woman with a long black skirt, ankle-high black boots and wearing a black shawl wrapped around your head and shoulders. When the teachers shooed you away from us, you’d flutter a tiny hand in front of your lips and mumble.
Carrying a couple of trash bags, I went to Highland Park Cemetery near Hermosa to tidy the grounds for Memorial Day.
You died in 1976; I hadn’t remembered that, but I wasn’t living here at the time. And here’s your family. I remember my father telling me that they died of the disease that deafened and deformed you. What was it? Measles? Diphtheria, maybe.
No one else appeared as I walked each quarter of the grounds, but I know that on Memorial Day the narrow gravel roads will be crowded with cars. Neighbors who haven’t been here for years will stroll the aisles, decorating the graves of their own dead. And they’ll notice, and comment, on graves that have not been spruced up.
A man’s name reminds me how his wife used to roll his wheeled bed between the displays in one of the buildings at the county fairgrounds. I never knew what put him into that bed, but I shuddered every time I saw his pale face propped on the pillows.
I stuffed into my bags battered Christmas wreaths, shredded plastic and cloth flowers, broken crosses and flags smeared with mud.
A little square tombstone has fallen backward. Oh yes, they were neighbors on the east side of our ranch; we met them occasionally when we were all fixing fence. My dad would lean on a post talking while I wandered down the fence line reattaching staples. I try to set the stone upright, but it’s too heavy.
Blades of brome grass are woven through some fallen bouquets, indicating that whoever placed them on these graves hasn’t been back since last year. Recent rains have turned the yellow gumbo into glue that clings to my shoes, sucking me downward.
I once wrote in a poem that nothing but buffalo grass and graves thrive on this hill, “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil.”
My folks always called it “Decoration Day.” Originally, relatives adorned the graves of armed services members with flags, wreaths and flowers. First widely observed on May 30, 1868, Decoration Day was created to honor both Union and Confederate Dead. As the custom of visiting the cemetery on the last Monday in May developed, so did the practice of decorating all the graves. In 1971, an Act of Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday.
When my folks were alive, we visited the cemetery before Memorial Day every year. We didn’t clean up the whole cemetery, just worked on the graves of the folks related to us. My father always insisted on turning over the sod on each grave, and working the weeds out of the tangle. I thought it was gruesome to make each grave look fresh. Once I had to dig out six alfalfa plants from the grave of the grandfather I never knew. He worked so hard to grow hay for his cattle that I felt terrible destroying those plants. My poem continued:
I’ll leave the spade
against Martha’s rock, try the hoe, hack
at the stubborn roots worked deep in clay.
The shock moves up my arm, down the hoe,
drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.
Though I never knew my father’s parents, nor am I their blood relation, I feel connected to them through our ties to the land.
Untangling a plastic vase holding blue fabric flowers from the mesh of grasses, I looked them over. These looked fairly fresh, and lay between two graves, so I propped them against a headstone belonging to someone who died long ago and who probably has no living relatives in the area.
“That’s Eddie; he was my half-brother, from my mother’s first marriage,” my dad would explain. “And over here is his brother Archie.”
Archie’s stone, beside his mother’s, holds no message but the years of his birth and death. A cedar tree with a trunk thick as my thigh grows out of the grave’s heart. His brother Eddie, a few paces uphill, is identified as William Edward Callahan, a Sergeant in the 335th Field Artillery, 87th Division. Their photographs in the local history tome show them as brawny young men who marched off to World War I and survived.
Not long ago I found a box of letters Eddie wrote to his mother when he was in boot camp preparing for his overseas service in 1917 and 1918.
“I’m sure glad you had a good year because you need it want to get an Auto this fall so I can have a few joy rides when I come home next year I’ve been gone nearly a year now, haven’t I seems like a long time. . . . I’m still drilling rookies we’ve sure got a tough bunch. . . . part of them are in the guard house and the other half are ready to hit you with a knife every time you look around.”
Eddie later wrote that he didn’t believe he could ever settle down in one place after being in the service, but would travel the world. Instead, he married a local girl and settled down on the ranch with his parents. On March 29, 1942, his horse fell with him in one of our pastures. No one has ever shown me where he died. I picture his handsome, square-jawed face as I tuck a stray bouquet against his small white headstone.
Sorry I never knew you, Eddie; my dad never stopped talking about you and Archie. He grew up skinny and tall, a shriveled arm from the scarlet fever; he must have wanted so much to be sturdy and as handsome as you two.
I pick up a wad of crumpled newspaper, a plastic bag holding the remains of a French fry container, and a beer bottle from the grass beside a tall, elaborately carved headstone, and pause to read the name and dates. The stone has begun to sink into the gumbo on one side.
My father would gesture to this grave and say, “They used to be big wheels in this county. They used to BE somebody. Now the whole family is here. There’s no one left.”
I’m tucking a bouquet beside a square red stone when I realize it says “Bender.” Of course! My dad always called one of our pastures “the Bender place,” keeping these folks I never met alive in my mind and memory. Now I know that’s probably where some of the family originally homesteaded.
My bag is nearly full but I follow the trail of trash to the far west side of the cemetery. Here, overlooked by the dark slope of the distant Black Hills, are the joined graves of a young couple who had planned to marry before they were killed by a drunken driver. Marriage brings uncertainties, trials, but these two will truly be together forever.
Dragging my bag to my car, I pass the graves of several Civil War veterans, identified by standard military headstones. A.G. Fout served in Company F of the 40th Ohio Infantry, and a local historian has learned that Anderson G. Fout fought in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, as well as surviving the carnage at Shiloh. Harrison Adams, Company F of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, participated in the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain at Lynchburg, TN, and in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, among others. He and then his widow received Civil War pensions. Official lists indicate at least 16 Civil War veterans are buried here, men who probably came west for the land promised by the Homestead Act. The simple white headstones bear only their names, with no indication of wives or children. Since only Union soldiers were considered veterans, we may never know if Confederate soldiers are entombed here.
Beside John and Anna Lindsay’s plot, I pause to recall their faces and the stories they told of struggling to make a living in blizzards, prairie fires, grasshoppers, beetles, dry weather, dust storms, hail storms and low prices. Anna said they went without sugar, gas and tires for years. Their only daughter was born during the famous Blizzard of 1949. During lean years, including two world wars and the Depression, both of them took turns working in town. Anna worked for the local telephone company for 25 years.
“Now remember,” my father cautioned as he handed me the telephone receiver. I was in high school, just beginning to get calls from boys. “Remember,” he repeated strongly, “Don’t say anything on the telephone that you don’t want the whole neighborhood to know.”
I nodded, knowing what he meant.
Lindsays sold their place to the Hasselstroms about the time my father married my mother and we moved to the ranch. Whenever we sorted cattle in their corrals, I usually seized the chance to explore their empty house or the cellar where they’d left a few discarded canning jars. When we tore down the old house, we moved the kitchen to our place to serve as a bunkhouse; later it became my office and now it’s my garden shed. The last linoleum Anna bought is still on the floor, and their round wood stove is ready to provide heat. Anna also read widely and enjoyed reciting these often-published lines:
I wish I were on yonder hill,
A’basking in the sun
With all the things I have to do
She got her wish. The sun shines brightly on their plot, and their stones feel warm to the touch.
A little lower on the hill, a headstone made of slate a half-inch thick is so difficult to read that I kneel in the grass and trace the delicately-carved letters. The baby who is buried here was nine months old, and died in 1892, not long after this cemetery was established. Surely the slate was collected in the nearby Hills. Several other markers, many of them dated to the harsh years of the 1930s, were probably made at home by relatives, of concrete set with quartz and other decorative stones.
At one time, the people buried in a nearby plot were important enough to be memorialized with an elaborately carved marble cross taller than I am. Now the weeping angel draped over the cross presides over nothing but weeds.
I am admiring an immaculate grave covered in red lava rock with a white quartz cross in the center when I realize it is the resting place of Homer and Lillian Hansen. Some days when the school bus stopped at their store, I was able to spend a hoarded dime for a candy bar. I introduce myself to the woman working there, their granddaughter, Joann.
“I’m visiting my future,” my father said each Memorial Day as he walked among the graves.
In a double plot lies William, born in 1927, dead in 1998, and still waiting for Ruth, whose birth date is engraved on the stone beside him. Tulips that may have been planted on a grave dug in 1975 are still blooming in cheery tones of red and yellow beside the frilly white blossoms of native death camas in the buffalo grass. A few sturdy thistles are budding between graves.
A piece of sandstone no larger than a piece of typing paper is nearly buried in the grass. I can’t see or feel any engraved letters. A broken cross, weathered gray, leans against it.
Not far away is the gravestone of the folks for whom a county road south of my place is named. I remember only the last one alive, an elderly spinster who died while I was in high school.
“Hanson” announces a great gray stone, and I can hear my father talking about these neighbors, Swedes who had come west with his father.
“The last one, Christine, got so she’d hide in the cellar when people came to visit. If they drove up from the east, they’d see her running across the yard toward the entrance.”
On our way to our east pasture, we passed their disintegrating corrals and house, and the collapsed cellar. Once I’m home, I turn to Our Yesterdays, a magnificent 920 pages of local history, hoping to find out more information. Sadly, I find that the Hansons, like many of the people my father knew when he was a child, were apparently all gone from the community before Anna Lindsay and her crew started collecting information for the book.
Nearly buried in lilacs is a stone labeled “Pelter,” and I hear my father’s voice again.
“Finn Pelter and his wife were headed to town with their new baby when the team bolted. Finn didn’t hesitate for a second.” My father shakes his head, laughing. “He grabbed the baby from his wife, handed her the reins of the horses, and jumped off the wagon.”
I am likely to be the only living person who remembers that story and can see the logic of it. Finn knew that the horses would eventually stop. He must have believed he could protect the baby better by jumping off rather than risk injury if the wagon tipped over. Finn’s mother, LuVisa, after whom his daughter was named, is buried beside the couple. Her tombstone reads, “She hath done what she could.” Finn just did what he could to save his child.
The name Upham catches my eye, another family that figured in my father’s stories. I see by the tombstone that he was only 10 or 11 years old when the last one died. Was he reciting stories he’d heard his parents tell? I find the same contradiction when I look at several other stones: they died when my father was a child. But he was always a good listener, and he had a phenomenal memory, so he recalled details that he may have heard from his father. I doubt anyone else remembers those tales, and why didn’t I write them down? I was scribbling notes from the time I was nine years old.
Here’s the grave of the girl who was killed in a collision just below cemetery hill, at the crossroads I can see when I straighten up. The stone on her grave has three parts; her parents’ birth dates are engraved beside the dates of her short life.
Chiseled on the back of the three joined stones is a statement signed with her name: “Love is caring enough not to hold on tightly. 1981.”
Eventually, I come to the small plot that holds my husband, George. I’ve clipped away the grass so the iris plants will show, along with the memorial plaque identifying him as an Air Force veteran. Today I see a small plastic box tucked against the headstone. Inside is a note from someone whose name I don’t recognize: “I tied these flies for you, George.” This little gift has given me back a vivid memory, in almost-living color, and I nestle it against the headstone again.
I can see you hooking these flies into your hatband, George, smiling that half smile that shows your gold tooth, stripping line and stepping into rippling water that gleams with sunshine.
Beside George lie my parents’ low stones. I’ve clipped the invasive grass short enough so the iris I planted here might get enough sunshine to bloom in time for Memorial Day. Beside my mother’s stone I’ve nurtured a lush collection of flax with deep blue blooms, just the color of her eyes when she was young.
In the newer part of the cemetery, where George is buried, many of the names are unfamiliar to me. Strangers. People for whom my mind supplies no memories. Yet this is their place too, and the people who were my neighbors are strangers to them.
Still, I continue to pick up litter and prop used bouquets close to the headstones. Behind me, I hear the roar of the riding mower operated by a man hired by the Cemetery Board to trim between the graves. He maneuvers his big machine carefully, bending over the side to be sure he doesn’t nick a stone.
Several rows of graves below me, a woman is wielding long clippers, lopping off branches from some of the huge lilac bushes that have grown over and around many graves. From a distance, these bushes look beautiful, bursts of green and purple on the pale prairie grass of the hillside. But on graves, they are a menace. Nothing hampers their growth; they cover entire graves and even topple large stones.
Taking a break, I walk down to where Terri is working and we lean against her pickup looking at the masses of lilac bushes left to cut back.
“I’m going to spend the summer doing this,” she says. “It has to be done, and no one else is doing it. Some of these people don’t have any living relatives.” Her grandson and niece drag lilac branches to her truck as we talk.
Guiltily, I look at the lilacs dominating the graves of my grandparents, Charley and Ida Hasselstrom. I know them only through my father’s memories and photographs. The first picture that comes to my mind is always the first one I saw of them, both seated on the weathered steps of the old house. I wrote about them in my poem, “Rancher: 1864-1928:”
A broad-shouldered man with a mustache and serious eyes,
he poses beside his wife seated on the porch.
Their first pregnancy bulges
despite the bulky dress and the hot day.
Her first three children are seated
steplike at his left,
with a collection of nieces and nephews behind him,
as if the entire pyramid of flesh
upon his shoulders.
Charley Hasselstrom married the widow Ida Sanders Callahan and indeed took responsibility for the whole tribe of her relatives. Now I’m responsible for the graves of those who stayed in this area and died here. Time to go get the big clippers from the garage and start hacking those bushes.
Terri’s grandson crawls out from under a lilac bush shouting, “I found a dead guy in there!”
Bending down, I see the tunnel carved into a tangle of lilacs, and at the end, a crude concrete cross studded with fist-sized chunks of rose quartz. I’ve read that in ancient times pink quartz was believed to symbolize love. Did the survivors of this man know that symbolism, or only choose the most beautiful rocks they could find?
Perched on the concrete border around the graves below the stone marked HASSELSTROM, I look south, to the hayfields where Charley Hasselstrom drove his teams of horses collecting hay for his cattle for the winter: “Fannie and Queen and Betts and Beauty.” He wrote their names in his journal. “Katy, Martha and Ester and Mary and May and Dolly.” He made his sons dig graves for the horses.
“I don’t want them to just lie there and rot and be eaten by coyotes, boys. They did a lot of work for us.”
I could find those graves in the hayfield. I’m the last one who knows.
To the southeast, past the town of Hermosa where subdivisions are beginning to crawl up the hills and ooze into those rich hayfields, I can see the high plateau where Charley and Ida homesteaded and raised their family.
I look north, where I own five burial plots surrounding George and my parents. I’ve provided room enough for me, for Jerry, and for anyone else we might invite to join us. There we’ll rest, and gradually those who knew us will cease to be.
Who will care for the family graves then? “Mitakuye oyasin” say the Lakota, “We are all related.” May some of our relatives take responsibility for all who lie in Highland Park.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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Author’s note: Some of the names have been changed to protect individual privacy.
My intent was to post this blog in advance of Memorial Day. However, my Internet service, which has always been less than satisfactory, has failed again. I’m not sure what the company is calling itself this week; it seems to change business names frequently and one must wonder why. Most recently, our service has been Exede which used to be Hughesnet which became WireFree USA and which I’m told is now called Rapid Choice. I have been waiting a week for my Internet service to be resumed and I’m told I may not be able to connect for several more days.
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I quoted from two of my poems in this essay—
The first poem, with the lines “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil” as well as “drumming to bones I’ll never see” is “Memorial Day” from Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993)
The second poem, beginning “A broad-shouldered man,” is “Rancher: 1864-1928” from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)
* * *
All of the cemetery photos were taken at Highland Park Cemetery, Hermosa, South Dakota. The stones pictured– other than Archie Callahan’s, the Hasselstrom family marker, and the iris blooming on my mother’s grave– do not necessarily correspond with the stories in the essay.
The photo of Anna Lindsay at her telephone switchboard is from the local history book Our Yesterdays.
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Through the magic of some internet searching I learned that the poem Anna Lindsay often quoted, which was once thought to be her own composition, is apparently the work of another.
“Ambition” by E.C. Richardson was published in The Saturday Evening Post on November 19, 1932.
I would I were beneath a tree
A-sleeping in the shade,
With all the bills I’ve got to pay
I would I were on yonder hill
A-basking in the sun,
With all the work I’ve got to do
I would I were beside the sea
Or sailing in a boat,
With all the things I’ve got to write
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