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The DNA of time

The sun shone in an azure sky. While it was warm, fall was in the air. The season had stripped the few trees in the vast, 86-acre cemetery, part of Independence, KS’ park/cemetery/zoo complex. It was the kind of fall day we have all experienced, and the kind of day that will appear next year and the year after into eternity.

A tattered American flag flapped in a small concrete-statuary urn next to the funerary tent. The urn sat next to a tentpole and was filled with plastic flowers. Under the tent, two rows of fuzzy fleece-covered chairs stood in front of a tombstone belonging to another family. Just beyond, next to the urn, cemetery workers had dug a small hole, a pile of dirt and clay at the rim of the hole.

The service for Virgnia’s mother Vera Bluejacket was tasteful, absent of the evangelical “come to Jesus and be saved” rhetoric and energy that once accompanied Vera’s husband Roy’s funeral, held in this spot in summer 2003. Lindey, the pastor of Maybelle Baptist Church, wore a Blue Lives Matter facemask—the only outwardly political symbol in this peaceful setting. His readings from the Bible and his personal prayers were sedate and thoughtful. Virginia’s sister, a seminary-trained cleric, read a tribute to Vera, who’s death at 95 was expected, spieled on the various roles Vera took in her long life. Margaret, the eldest of the Lesco sisters, read a comforting passage from Psalms, and Karen, another sister, read another Bible passage with the oldest sibling’s (David) son Graylin.

They all closed the ceremony with the sisters and Grayin laying their hands on the cobalt-blue glass urn that held Vera’s last mortal remains.

I sat under the tent behind Virginia and next to Jo Anne’s husband Bruce. I’ve known Bruce since the summer of 1981 when I worked with him at a we-pump gas station about a mile from my house. I had just graduated high school and was raw clay, completely immature and wide-eyed at the world. I met Virginia through Bruce, who had taken up with Jo Anne a year or so after our summer at the gas station. Had it nor been for Bruce, Virginia and I would not be married today.

I thought about that as we listened to Lindey and the sisters. He has gone through his seasons. Once a fiery radical, he became over the years a conservative leader who headed music nonprofits in Kansas City and then other nonprofits in St. Paul and then, when Jo Anne graduated from seminary and received a position in New Ulm, a nonprofit hospital foundation in a tiny town not far from New Ulm. Bruce is a talented musician and aches to get back to the piano, he told me, but does not have the time with his work for the foundation.

Surveying the years, I thought about how I had changed and felt twinges of regret. I had been harsh with people, doctrinaire and inchoate. I had shown my ass innumerable times. As one situation as another came to me, embarrassment ratcheted me. I turned from Bruce and looked out over the gravestones. Palmer. Hosier. Smith. Parkinson.

It was in this moment that I felt the sting of my own mortality. Day to day, life seems endless. I pick up my satchel in the morning after I sort my mail and load the truck. I have the feeling I will do this for many years. I don’t think of my own demise and what people might say of me when they memorialize me. Did I live a full life? Have I affected people and their world positively? Have I been a force for good or for harm?

The cemetery reminded me of the naked stones I had seen along the Oregon Trail when I walked from Kansas City to Helena, Montana, so many years ago. Nameless graves. Identities lost. Stones seen now but slowly sinking in the prairie soil, soon to disappear. Lives forgotten.

It was then that I learned that in death we are all anonymous. Indeed, many of us will have gravestones. But contemplating the names all around me, I thought about how they are all just names. We all have names and lists of them or cemeteries full of them make the names meaningless. Someday, the weather and seasons will erode the stones. The memories of others will fade and die with them. Once in the ground, we are like those old-time graffitists who carved their names in the stones and cliffsides everywhere where white men advanced over the prairies. We read them and wonder who they were. Then, we realize we are hungry and seek out lunch. Thoughts of them pass as quickly as they entered our consciousnesses.

At a history conference in St. Louis one year, I listened to a historian/archeologist tell the story of a St. Louis construction site. Workers with their heavy machinery scraped the ground, pulling up what they thought were sticks and branches. It was only the closer inspection of a foreman that revealed these organics were human bones. Work stopped and urban archeologists came in to document the site.

It turns out that the construction site was once one of St. Louis’ largest cemeteries. It was plowed under sometime in the 1950s. Further searches of the archives revealed that the gravestones lined the banks of local streams where farmers who had bought the stones for pennies laid them to prevent streamside erosion.

Construction continued and a new office complex now stands astride what the archeologists had not studied. Those hundreds or thousands of people lost now forever. Gone and forgotten.

That is my fate. I don’t know about others. But as a historian, I know that those we study in the books and documents are the very few who surface in the seafoam on the shore of time. The rest of use disappear in memory and time. We are beneath the ocean, supporting the seas of civilization. More than that we are not. We served our role and our time ended. Blips in the vast expanses of time.

And I like that. To some, this fact of anonymity may seem sad or pointless. What is the purpose of our lives if we won’t be remembered past a generation or two? The amateur genealogists who haunt the archives may dredge us up sometime in the far future. They will know our names. But they can’t know our secrets—who we loved, who we slept with, what our favorite weather was, what time of year we found most comforting. Our names do not stand. Our presences added to the whole of humanity. That’s the best we can do.

At the conclusion of Vera’s ceremony, I took Nick to look at Vera’s tombstone. Her husband Roy passed away in 2003. They share a stone. Vera will not be there, as the sisters and Graylin scattered Vera’s ashes at the farm in Welch, Oklahoma, about an hour from Independence.

Fitting, I thought, to have a stone with no remains under it. We could all have a stone, planted anywhere, anytime. People will stumble upon them and wonder for a moment who the name stood for. Then, they will move on like all of humanity, like all of history.

There is hope in that. We are encoded in the DNA of time, integral to the whole, even if our infinitesimal contribution is unknowable.

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