There is something profoundly fitting about tending graves for Memorial Day. My dad did it for years, and I’d go along, just to watch him put in carnations beside our family stones, as if the old folks were approving. He didn’t do it because they were veterans—none of them were, even though he was, as were four of his brothers and sisters.
The driving spirit Memorial Day ”doings” was Grandma, who lost a brother in August of 1918, just a few months from the end of the war to end all wars. She made it perfectly clear until the day she died that, come Memorial Day attention must be paid, whether or not the deceased fell in war.
Once palefaces started moving into Illinois and Wisconsin, Chief Black Hawk, like almost every other Native American of the 19th century, was told he and his people should take up residence father west in Iowa, away from the land along the Mississippi, Black Hawk’s homeland. He wouldn’t. White folks wouldn’t take no for answer, but he still refused. He was ordered to go. He said no. Why not? It was unthinkable for him to leave behind his dead ancestors. He went to war.
Seems foolishness today. We make the nomadic Lakota buffalo chasers look like couch potatoes. But I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for old Chief Black Hawk.
Saturday night we went out to the cemetery because Grandpa wanted some flowers put there at the stone of his wife, who died five years ago now. We took him, some flowers, and our grandson too, even though he spent most of his time playing on the stones. He said he remembers Grandma, even though we was a pre-schooler when she died, remembers that she loved to bake, he says, although we’re not sure of that at all. But I’m convinced that it was good for him to be there.
And then, for the first time in years, we stopped the barrel-like stone over the site of my own great-grandparents, immigrant Dutch folks who left the beautiful North Sea island of Terschelling, the Netherlands, because there wasn’t a church there quite strict enough. I don’t know much about them really since my father was born more than a decade after they were both gone. What he knew, he knew only by family lore.
In 1905, his son, who’d become a preacher just a year or so before, was visiting his parents in Orange City and filling a pulpit one Sunday in Carnes, Iowa. Father and son took the wagon together on the five or six-mile jaunt to the old country church, now long gone. That day, Great-Grandpa Schaap listened to his son hold forth. I hope he did well.
That night, the wagon and the horses back in the barn, he died.
Born 1836, the stone says, and then, “Gest. 13 Maart 1905.” There’s a passage from the Psalms in Dutch lower down on that barrel. Somewhere, I know, I have the translation.
That’s my grandson , standing over the grave set in the oldest part of the Orange City cemetery.
I’m not sure if he even begins to understand how significant it is for him to stand there. Maybe his own grandpa has a bit too much of Black Hawk in him.
But I rather like the picture. He’s in third grade, and it’s now 107 years since his great-great-great grandparents died and were buried right there; but somehow I think it’s good for him to think, just for a minute, that once upon a time a man named Cornelius and a woman named Neeltje left Holland in 1868 and years later were buried here in good black Iowa ground, the land where he was born, the land where he and his own great-grandpa still live.
I just think he should know, and a holiday, as it always was, is blessed time to bring it up.