We live across from a cemetery.
Less than two acres with a sloping hill, it is nestled between trees and a busy road. The gravel driveway takes you on a half-circle loop before depositing you across from the boundary line that separates our house from my aunt’s.
For decades, my grandpa was the caretaker, mowing the grass in the cool of the evening, picking up silk flowers as they blew off headstones, and helping to prepare sites for graveside services.
I never knew to be concerned or weirded out by our closeness to the dead. I wore frilly dresses made by my grandma as we hunted Easter eggs in the front yard, steps away from the cemetery. We celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving nestled in the small den–where my grandparents kept all the toys–as cars crept slowly down the rocky lane to visit their deceased loved ones.
My grandpa is now buried in the cemetery across from my house, the house he and my grandma built, the one that became too much to care for after he died, the house that we bought in 2017. My niece, the baby taken too soon, who only lived a short thirty two days, is laid next to him. My grandma’s name is already etched on a headstone, patiently waiting for her to join my grandpa.
In the summer months, the girls and I walk the dogs in the cemetery. They race their bikes down the hill as I wander through the headstones looking for the oldest one, the youngest one, the one with the kid born the same year as me but who didn’t make it through high school.
The day before a funeral, a friend from high school’s dad will show up with a backhoe to dig a new grave. He works alone and efficiently, rain or snow or shine. The next morning, the funeral home arrives, erects their tent, puts down the odd pretend grass-carpet, and sets up folding chairs. From my office window, I attend a graveside service for someone I don’t know, bowing my head when they bow their heads, and standing when someone plays taps.
Last month on my trip to Fort Wayne, I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon at The Genealogy Center in the Allen County Public Library. Their library is the second largest genealogy library in the country, only topped by Utah’s Mormon genealogy library. People travel from all parts of the country and world to research ancestors, property, and family trees there. The sheer volume of resources, family histories, and yearbooks from around the United States will take your breath away. Standing in the stacks, thinking about the miles of books just telling us about people who lived before us felt reverent to me.
I can’t begin to explain all the information accessible through this library. Those family tree websites? You can use them for free at the library. Those trained ancestry professionals you see interviewed on TV? Those are the people who work at this library. All the old newspapers, land deeds, census records, and birth certificates you might want to gather as you trace your family back multiple generations? You can get them there.
Before the trip, I was asked to submit some family information: who are my parents, when were they born, where were my grandparents married. When I arrived at the center, I met with a Genealogy Librarian who had spent a few hours completing my family tree for me. I walked away from our time together with a stack of family documents (census records from my great-great grandparents, birth certificate for my namesake relative, pictures of headstones in Illinois from five generations back, pictures of my grandparents’ grandparents…) and the name of every person on my family tree back six generations.
It’s a little unheard of to be able to fill in six generations back so quickly, the genealogy librarian told me, it’s not normally this easy.
It helped that my lines were so solidly American. The Keatons and the Ritters, the Kimerys and the Spitzners have been in the Midwest for a long time; we immigrated to America in the early 1800s, worked our way west pretty quickly, and then stayed put. We came mostly from England with a little bit of Germany and France mixed in; we became farmers and teachers and factory workers and we didn’t move around much. We liked Illinois and Indiana, the land was good for farming and the cities were just close enough for those who wanted to work in developing industries.
The researcher was able to show me where our German last names were slowly Americanized and the names of the many relatives who took up arms in the Civil War to fight against the confederacy.
I learned it’s often hard to track families back this far because our patriarchal society didn’t always keep record of women well. Maiden names weren’t important and obituaries identified women as “Mrs. Christopher Graham” instead of “Mrs. Mary (Ritter) Graham.” Often when we start digging into our ancestors, we get stopped on maternal lines. I was proud to see the women in my family often carried their maiden names around on official documents even if it wasn’t common for the time period.
You could keep going easily, the librarian told me as our time drew to a close. We didn’t stop your tree because we got stuck, we just ran out of time. But you could come back and probably go a lot farther without too much trouble.
When a grave is dug, and then later, a casket is covered, you don’t need as much dirt as you took out. It seems silly to tell you that detail, but if you live across the road from a cemetery, it’s important.
In the corner of the cemetery, near where the bumpy gravel drive drops off at our property line, is a pile of dirt. An old sign, created by my grandpa years ago, shares the “Free Dirt” proclamation. The fresh, rich earth goes fast so you have to hurry if you need some for your yard, for your garden, for your field. I’ve received text message reminders from my aunt when the good dirt arrives.
There’s good dirt over there if you need any.
In warmer weather, Chris will hook up the trailer to our riding lawnmower, the girls will jump in the back with their kid-sized shovels, and they’ll take a trip to the graveyard for dirt to fill our landscaping or to top off the garden. I don’t try to think too much about why the dirt is extra fertile or what I’m shoveling as I spread it around my newly-planted bushes. I know why it’s the good dirt, and I leave the thought at that.
I am not a farmer like my ancestors.
I don’t work in a factory like my grandpa and my great-grandpa.
I was the first person on my dad’s side of the family to earn a bachelor’s degree, the second on my mom’s.
I dreamed about leaving Indiana, the Midwest, the cornfields and the soybeans when I was growing up. This place was not meant for me.
But here I am, living in the house my grandparents built, sending me kids to the school my parents went to, passing my uncle on the road as he drives the school bus and learning how to garden–with the rich cemetery soil my grandpa cared for–from my aunt who lives next door.
I’ve decided to stay put.
I’ve decided to tell my daughters they don’t have to get rid of their names to live a happy life.
I’ve decided that small and quiet is better for me.
I’ve decided that staying put, taking walks around headstones, and growing things here, in the Midwest, is where I’m supposed to be.
*If you haven’t visited The Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I think you should. You can check out their resources or get access to their trained professionals who want to help you find the pieces of your family tree on their website. You can also sign up for a free 30-minute consult with one of their librarians. I got a little extra help and attention, because I was there to write about my experience, but you have access to all the resources and information they have.
*Fun fact: If you ever come across old yearbooks or family histories (a lot of families have bound books about their ancestors), and you don’t know what to do with them, The Genealogy Center will gladly accept them. They’ll add them to their shelves (and electronic records) so people can have access to the information for generations to come.
DISCLOSURE: THIS IS A SPONSORED POST. I VISITED THE LIBRARY IN CONJUNCTION WITH A SPONSORED TRIP WITH VISIT FORT WAYNE.
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