My mother was not afraid of cemeteries.
She considered the one in Oldenburg an interesting archive of our German ancestry. She smiled as she walked among the grave markers, most faded, some shiny, and made commentary on the souls who lay there.
“Step over the burial sites,” she said. And we did. Her directive made my forebears eerily alive to me. I didn’t dare step on Aunt Millie’s belly or Great Grandpa’s back, but I didn’t know exactly where they were below the sunken surfaces in front of their markers.
Like ducklings, we followed my mother and listened with some unease as she pointed at faded markers and told of the Germans we children had not known but whose histories we held in distorted fragments.
Uncle Charlie drank himself into a stupor one night and passed out on an Indianapolis street. A city bus crushed him. He should’ve passed out somewhere else, not in the bus lane.
I never could remember if Uncle Charlie was actually buried in Oldenburg, but if he wasn’t, he should’ve been. The historical fragment was for me a badge of family honor. None of my friends could say their uncle died that way.
My grandfather bought a final resting place for himself more than a hundred miles away. If he had chosen the Oldenburg graveyard, someone would have dug him up and smacked him hard with the same frying pan Grandma used many years ago.
My mother did love that cemetery, and her inside scoop helped make the spooky tour more tolerable to 12-year-old me. Grandma “got so mad at Bernard” during a movie on TV one evening when Uncle Bernard said, “Fake, fake, fake.” Grandma said, “Oh, shut up, Bernard!”
And there was her gravestone, as stark as her own disposition. She was a hard woman, a beer-drinking Catholic who tried to bestow some of her large statues of Mary and Joseph upon me a few years earlier. She must’ve seen her approaching death.
I declined to take the statues. I didn’t know what in the world I’d do with them. They sure didn’t benefit her in any visible way.
If I had them now, I’d set them on her gravestone and let her dust her own knickknacks.
And to whomever was with me, I would recite the fragment about the day she banged Grandpa on the head with that skillet, which might have been after he bought a house several blocks from the cemetery, which he did with the money he obtained by selling farmland she inherited from her side of the family, land which he sold while she was in the insane asylum, where he placed her against her will after she fell into deep depression after losing another infant.
My mother smiled because the torment and vacuum of her childhood had subsided enough that she was able to get lost in the fascination of ancestry. She loved the cemetery. She knew these people! These were real Germans who spoke at least two languages and ate the same German food we kids ate without considering that most of our friends would gag on Braunschweiger and rye bread.
My great-grandfather came over from Germany to escape political upheaval and get ahead in the New World. Shortly after arriving, an American paid him to enlist in the Civil War in his place.
Great-grandpa went to war, speaking German and carrying a flag for the North. The man who paid him was working on his roof the following week and fell off, broke his neck and died.
My mother’s perspective on the graveyard did not keep me from falling into a silent bout with grievous sorrow over the seeming futility of life on Earth when I was in eighth grade. All those Germans under my feet – what was life worth if death ends all things?
I got over it, and now I understand my mother’s perspective on the old cemetery. From a certain, wholesome angle, it’s a great place to visit every now and then. My mother chose another resting place, for some reason. Her grave in Terre Haute is marked with a plaque that says, “She loved her 11 children.”
And because she’s not in Oldenburg, I never think to visit her site. But I always, always think of her when perusing the family archive that she turned into a storybook.
Max T. Russell writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website, maxtrussell.com.