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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Children Of The Grave

June 6th I wrote about a cemetery we Lanes stumbled upon in Missouri. At the time, a million questions filled my head but I couldn't find anyone with answers. A few days later, going through Missouri again, I asked my husband if he remembered where the cemetery was. Amazingly enough, he knew the exact exit. I asked if he wouldn't mind stopping again. I really wanted some answers and I wanted to take pictures for those of you who requested them.

The cemetery has no name, gate or signs of recent visitors. I walked into the gas station which shares a lot with it and asked the clerk if she knew anything about the little cemetery. She knew nothing and asked her boss if he did. "Nope." I asked if they knew who the local historian was. Again getting an in-stereo "Nope."

I walked back outside and spotted a guy cutting the grass at the station. I asked him if he knew anything. "Nope. But I sometimes mow it because it looks so raggedy."

"Did you notice there are graves in the high weeds and wooded part too?"

"Well yeah but I ain't getting paid to cut all that."

I walked away and hoped the moron I just talked to never had to worry about tree roots popping through his child's grave.

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The infant coffin was pushed through the ground by tree roots. The headstone to the right, obviously no longer in place, is so worn, it's illegible. I don't know if the headstone is for this uprooted baby coffin and as it seems, neither does anyone else.

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Baby Johnston's grave is deep in the wooded area with weeds covering his or her resting place.

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Another child. No answers, dates or name, unmarked. Just a small outline in stone of one more child.

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Dorothy is one of the many 5-year-old children buried in the forgotten cemetery. Her headstone was in better condition than all the others.

My fascination with cemeteries is directly attributed to an old lady friend of mine, Juanita. Back in the day she was a delivery girl. She had a newspaper route that was the size of a small city. She didn't even drive. She would just walk house-to-house for hours on end, getting the news delivered. She wanted desperately to write news and take news photos but never thought she would be good enough. So, she did the next best thing.

She came to live in Illinois following her sweetheart. He ended up marrying someone else and because she was poor, living on a newspaper delivery salary, she never was able to save enough money to go back home to Virginia.

Juanita used to come into the newsroom and shoot the shit with us. Some of my coworkers would completely dodge her, hiding in the bathroom or sneaking out the backdoor. She knew everything that everyone was doing and wasn't shy to share. She wasn't just a town gossip, she was walking history, which is one of the many things that made her so fascinating to me. She'd been in that town (on my beat as a reporter) for 45 years so she shared lots of stories that ultimately helped me do my job.

In her off time from delivering papers, she volunteered in the community she learned to call home. The thing that was closest to her heart was the local cemetery. She was awestruck by the many Civil War Veterans laid to rest there. She would bring flowers from her garden and place them on their graves. All graves of people she'd never even met. She came up with an idea to refurbish the forgotten cemetery but would need money and lots of it. She started fundraisers and did some genealogy to find out if these old war heroes had any living kin.

One small woman, with one big mouth (the other reason I liked her so much) can make a difference. Juanita found people many states away who wanted to help in her quest. People who really wanted to honor those heroes the way they deserved.

Hundreds of headstones were worn so much, the names were illegible. Somehow, this one woman was able to map the cemetery, index the names, organize an annual cemetery walk, complete with other volunteers dressed in Civil War clothing who offer a history lesson about the war and those buried there to the hundreds of visitors the event draws. Juanita collected enough funds to replace all of the headstones and help build new wrought iron gates (identical to the originals) for the entryway and a rotunda for people to sit, pray and think.

When Juanita's health took a turn, she suddenly stopped visiting the newsroom. And although she was annoying at times, and would go on and on, I liked her and I missed her. I called her and asked where she had been. She didn't sound good. She said she couldn't walk anymore and the doctors had no idea what was wrong.

After work, I stopped by her house. She talked me into helping finish some of the many projects she had going at the cemetery, which I was honored to do.

Juanita and I built a friendship based on news and dead people. While I'll probably never embark on a project in the gangbusters manner she did, I couldn't help but think of her as I stared in awe at this forgotten cemetery. I knew if she were still alive today, she would somehow find a way to make sure those children were remembered.