by Susan E. Lindsey
I kneel in the damp sod in front of Lydia’s lichen-covered gravestone. It’s a chilly October day in southeastern Kansas. The wind scatters white clouds across a cornflower blue sky. Dry oak leaves skitter through the graveyard and collect by the thirty or so gravestones.
I press my palms against the soil covering Lydia. I’m not sure what I expect to feel—surely not a pulse. Lydia’s heart stopped beating more than 140 years earlier. I had been haunted by dreams of her for months.
I’m an amateur genealogist; we live for these moments. Call us crazy (many do), but there’s something fascinating about chasing the dead.
Lydia died at the age of eighteen while giving birth to her first child. Her baby boy survived his mother by only a few months. Lydia’s husband was my great-great grandfather, David Lindsey.
“Alas, she hath left us, and we mourn our loss,” the inscription reads.
Just to the left of Lydia’s stone is a similar gravestone. David’s second wife, Sarah Sophia, lies beneath it. The two arched stones look alike—made from the same material, inscribed in a similar style, and each has a weeping willow at the top. A small lamb lies beneath the willow tree on Sarah’s stone—symbolizing the baby boy buried with her. She, too, died in childbirth. My great-great grandfather had three sons; only Sarah’s older boy survived.
The two women didn’t know one another in life, but spend eternity next to each other in this small family cemetery, a speck in the midst of rolling farmland.
Mine is a sometimes gruesome hobby. I spend hours in old cemeteries, dim basement archives, old county courthouses, and historic battlefields. I am caught up in lives long passed. I admire their courage. I’m touched by their tragedies and moved by their grace.
I feel as though I almost know them, that I understand something of their lives, joys, sorrows, and passions. They have become more than dates and names.
Lydia’s story haunted me. By the time she married David, she was an orphan. She had lost both of her parents, two sisters, and a brother in less than six months. I’ve never learned why—maybe one of the countless diseases of the past swept them away.
She married David when she was seventeen. Exactly ten months after their wedding, she died in childbirth. After I found her grave, placed yellow grocery store roses on it, and whispered a prayer, my dreams about her stopped.
Others now take Lydia’s place in my thoughts and dreams and haunt me. They are my direct and not-so-direct ancestors, and their neighbors and friends.
There’s James, who packed up his wife and family, and moved from Kentucky to Illinois twenty-seven years before the Civil War because he was determined that his children would be raised in a state free of slavery. Most of his relatives remained in Kentucky and continued to own other human beings.
Jane, his wife, had courage and strength of her own. She gave birth for the first time just ten months after her marriage, and for the next twenty-one years, she had a new baby on an average of one every twenty months—twelve children in all. She raised all of them to adulthood, an extraordinary feat in an era when half of all children died before they were grown.
James and Jane had a good friend named Ben. He also opposed slavery even though he was a slaveholder. But after living and working in New Orleans, Ben wanted no part of slavery. He spent the next few years educating his slaves to ensure they were literate. He then freed all of them and paid for their passage on a ship to Liberia, Africa. Ben’s involvement didn’t stop when his former slaves boarded the ship. For fifteen years, letters to and from the freed slaves and their former master crossed the Atlantic. Some of the letters still exist; I’ve held and read these yellowing pages.
There’s William, Ben’s brother-in-law. He lost his father when he was only five and his mother when he was eighteen. He and his wife had eleven children and William, a preacher, buried nine of them. He unknowingly brought home cholera after a trip. He survived the disease, but his wife and two of his sons did not. He struggled with guilt, tragedy, and debt the rest of his life.
I didn’t descend from powerful or famous people. My ancestors were mostly preachers and teachers and farmers.
My family’s history is entwined with the nation’s history. My grandfather pursued Poncho Villa. My great-great grandfather helped Kansas join the Union as a free state. My great-aunt served as a nurse at a first aid station at the Chicago World’s Fair. My paternal grandmother could shoot the head off of a chicken from across the barnyard. My maternal grandmother made exquisite bridal gowns. Her great-aunt was murdered by Plains Indians. My father, when he was just a teenager, helped get Pretty Boy Floyd’s car out of a ditch.
Some of my friends are researching their families. I hear their stories, too: the great-grandfather who, while drunk, smothered his own crying child; the woman with talent too big for her small town, who left her husband to embark on a stage career in New York and European capitals; and the father who walked across the frozen Ohio River to bring home Christmas gifts for his children.
These people were real. They lived through tornadoes, blizzards, drought, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, wars, and famine. They fell in love, married, had children, and buried loved ones. They made good choices and bad ones. They were human.
There’s no soap opera more compelling than these very real lives. Their stories should be remembered—these people helped shape our nation and literally brought us into being. But we also learn lessons from their lives about the nature of true sacrifice, and about honor, hard work, conviction, and courage. I complain less about trivial annoyances in my own life when I recall the very real challenges they faced.
So I continue to chase the dead, coaxing stories out of old documents, and trying to bring long-forgotten lives back into view.
"Chasing the Dead" received honorable mention in our spring essay contest.
Susan E. Lindsey fell in love with words in the second grade while reading The Wizard of Oz. After a nearly 20-year career in corporate communication and public relations, she now leads a much happier life as a writer, professional editor, and speaker. Her essays, short stories, and articles have been published in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Susan earned a degree in communication at Pacific Lutheran University. A member of three writing groups and numerous historical and genealogical societies, she is completing work on a nonfiction manuscript.