Two men were out for a drive. They could have been father and son, but were not. They were just friends, the younger one taking the older one for a drive to give him something new to look at and give his wife a break from the need to watch him. He had reached that time in life when he was no longer able to make clear decisions for himself. Not long ago he had walked out of their apartment and could not find his way back. They had not lived there long, and he had not been out by himself, so it was a dangerous situation. Someone recognized him and led him back home. The incident scared his wife, so now she is vigilant in watching him.
The young man had lived near the city all of his life, in fact longer than his life. At least he felt that way. Over a hundred years ago, his first ancestors had come and settled in the area, not long after the Civil War. They had responded to railroad advertisements of cheap land in the American West. Back home, in Franken, there was no more land. The land was owned by the Pope in Rome and his permission was needed to build a house, expand a field, or cut a tree in the forest; even to hunt an animal for food. As a result, families were crowded together in houses and many men had to walk from their village to a city to find work. The walk was too far to make in a day, so they had to sleep in the city during the week and walk home on Sunday mornings, their only day off, and return later that night. They were able to see their families only a few hours each week. It was an intolerable way to live. The railroads advertised cheap land were a man could be his own master and have his own land and farm. Thousands came, the young man’s family among them.
“Here is the school my grandmother and her children walked to,” the young man announced as they approached a rock structure. “At the peak of the roof it says ‘Lyona, 1874.’ The school building before this one had been a wooden shack. In the winters, when no one could farm, they cut and stockpiled the rock. When they had a big enough pile, they began this building. The shack was torn down and used for the outhouse. Before that, they just went behind bushes.”
“Oh!” The older man was surprised.
“Granma had walked two miles from the south, where she was born and grew up. My Dad and his sisters walked across the fields from their farm east of here a mile and a half. They would crawl through the wires of the fences. Dad was the oldest, so he walked first, especially when there was snow, to make tracks for his little sisters to walk in.
“At one place of every fence they had to cross,” the young man continued.
“Granpa would cut the brush growing in the fence row, so they could cross there. I’ve crawled through fences too, but I’ve not had to do it twice a day, and never in a dress! I don’t know how the little girls did it without the fabric getting caught on some of the barbs in the wires, or getting dirty. Of course, they helped each other, and held the wires a part a little, but wire isn’t elastic, so if you pull the wires tight and out of line, you ruin the fence, then cattle can get through and escape. I was always alone and never had anyone to hold the wires for me.”
“I never thought about that,” the older man commented. He had spent his entire life in a town or city and had never had to cross through a fence.
“Here’s the cemetery where everyone is buried,” the younger man continued.
“While I was away at college, it was expanded on two sides. My dad was buried in the far corner. After the expansion, he was in the middle. That’s still strange to me, but I’m getting used to it. All of his grandparents are buried here, as well as most of his aunts and uncles and cousins. A lot of them are children. Doctors couldn’t really do much in those days, not before penicillin was discovered.” He slowed the car and turned into the first driveway of the cemetery.
“There used to be a church here,” the young man pointed to the side. “It wasn’t one the family attended, but Granma went to Sunday School here sometimes. When Dad came along, they had a car and could drive to their own church. I remember the building when I was a little boy. I don’t know when, or why, or who took it down. It was here, then one day it was gone. I must have been very little, that’s all I remember.”
“Granma would come every Memorial Day and bring flowers for her parents and brothers and sisters. She had an older brother and younger sister who had died while she was a child. She would put flowers on their graves, but not those of her in-laws. Once, when I asked her why not, she said, rather sharply,
‘If Granpa wants to do that, he certainly can.’ That was the end of that conversation. I later learned that they didn’t get along very well. Granpa’s dad lived with them most of their married life until he died. When I was in college, I asked her about that. ‘It was HELL!’ She spat out. It was the most profanity I had ever heard her say. I didn’t bring it up again.”
The older man chuckled. He could just imagine her indignation.
“Granma’s only memory of her older brother was the day he didn’t get up off the bed to play with her. She was puzzled by that. She was also bewildered why the house was filled with grownups she didn’t know. She was only two years old. Her brother was four. Later, she concluded that that must have been the day of his funeral. His death made her the oldest of the children. Her little sister died later. She had a reaction to bee stings. Or, maybe hornets. Granma couldn’t remember which. Her sister must have stepped on a nest and they were all over her instantly. Then she fell down and more stung her. By the time someone could pull her away, she was stung all over and her arms and legs and face were beginning to swell. There was no medicine and they didn’t have a phone. By the time a brother could find the doctor and return home, the little girl was in a coma. She never recovered.”
“That’s tragic,” the older man shook his head.
“No one else in the family had had such a reaction. She was little, not yet three, and there were lots and lots of stings. They just over-whelmed her system. Over there,” he pointed. “My dad has a cousin who lived only one day. That was during the worst of the depression, and they couldn’t afford a marker, so they made their own with cement and scratched her name and date in the wet cement.”
“I can understand that,” the older man commented.
“There were some wooden markers here when I was a boy, but all the letters had eroded away by then, and then the bottoms completely rotten, and they disappeared. I don’t know what happened to them. They’re unmarked graves now.”
“That’s too bad,” the older man said, then pointed. “What’s that odd colored tree over there?”
“That’s one of my favorite markers. It’s shaped like a tree with stubs of branches coming out of it. I think it’s cement, but I’m not sure.”
“And, over there,” he pointed again.
“That’s my other favorite. It was brought down from the Dakotas or Minnesota, I’m not sure which, by some glacier, however long ago that was.
This part of the county is on the edge of glaciation. You go two or three miles south or west of here, and there are no more rocks like that. They’re special and I’m tickled that one was used for a gravestone. Most have been moved out of fields that are cultivated, but in the pastures you can still find them. The ones that are still in the ground are the bigger ones. My dad tried to dig one out with a bulldozer, but it was even too big for that!”
“Yep, sure is. We have no idea how really big it is. Now, we’re going to the local train stop.”
“You mean, station?” The older man asked.
“Nope,” the young man replied as he drove out of the cemetery.
“I don’t understand.”
“Here it is,” the younger man announced as he stopped at the bottom of a hill.
“What? Here? Where’s the train?”
“There’s no train anymore, not even any tracks, but if you look that way,” the younger man pointed. “You can see the rail bed between the trees where the tracks used to be.”
“There used to be a large flat rock that people would stand on to board the train. One year, the teacher who taught at that school up the hill, lived in the city and rode the train out in the morning and back in the afternoon. If she wasn’t waiting on the rock when school was out, the train would stop and wait for her.”
“Really? That’s not how trains operate today.”
“A shame, isn’t it?”
The older man agreed as they drove back to his apartment in the city where his wife was waiting for him, refreshed after some time of her own. Two weeks later the older man was in the hospital, fading fast. The doctor discouraged visitors, but the young man went anyway.
“I won’t stay long,” the young man said as he poked his head into the room. “I just had to see you again.”
The older man feebly raised his hand and smiled faintly. It was the last time the two saw each other.