by Paula Nutt
The place I’m going reminds me of a newspaper, especially the headlines. Letters and numbers, facts and figures, neatly lined up in rows and columns of black and white. Some catch your attention while others are passed over. But first I must get there.
Farm-to-Market Road 917 weaves between cotton fields, churches, and Dollar General stores. The mid-afternoon sun appears white, silhouetting cars before me. Like a near-death experience, I’m heading into the light. Turning onto Old Betsey Road, I remember Grandma telling me it was named after a locomotive that ran along the road a hundred years ago. Past the old Richter Farm, the Sonic Drive-in, and the serene pond surrounded by frenzied children and hungry ducks, I turn left onto Pioneer Road and reach my destination.
As I drive through the archway of the Keene Memorial Park, the newspaper headline feeling begins. Dark trees wave over white, narrow pathways bordered by stones. Those stones contain bare bones information about people who are no longer here.
Like Christina Stengaard. Born in 1866, died in 1909. Passersby see the basics of her life, but don’t know her stories. Did she have dreams? Did she achieve them? Did she love? Was she loved?
This place is familiar to me, so I do know what’s behind some of those headlines.
First is Alphonso Richter. Born in Germany, he sailed around the world seven times before he somehow landed in the Central Texas town of Keene. He raised crops, animals and a large family on a farm just outside of town. My great-great-grandfather entertained the community with his exotic tales of shipwrecks and circling sharks.
Albert Richter, Alphonso’s son, is nearby. He once told his large, hardworking family that they were going on a picnic. After the food baskets and kids were packed into wagons, he told two of his daughters to stay home and weed the vegetable garden. Many decades later, I could still hear the hurt in my Grandmother Lucille’s voice as she told us this story. She was one of the two girls left behind.
Lucille Richter Lucus liked to travel and once visited Europe. My grandmother married at 16, worked a small farm with her husband, and put her children through college by taking on extra jobs. In her 40s, she learned to paint pictures that she then sold in her brother-in-law’s art studio. When she was 88 years old, I scolded her because she had been up on her roof trimming pecan trees. She indignantly exclaimed, “What do you want me to do? Just sit around the house!” She loved yard sales, the Lord, biscuits, and her family.
Her husband, Burette Patterson Lucus, a painter and paper hanger, lies beside her. My strongest memory of him is hearing his cane clumping down the long hallway in the middle of his house. As Grandpa called my name – I was his favorite – I snuck out into the hot Texas afternoon, digging my toes in the sandy soil while dodging potato bugs. I risked catching chiggers in the Johnson grass that grew in the side yard just to avoid talking to him. I was too young to realize how a major stroke had changed him. Dennis, his son and my Dad, said Grandpa had a great sense of humor when he was younger.
Speaking of Dad, he is just down the hill from his parents. He had bright blue eyes that twinkled as he told us corny jokes and puns. My Aunt Nelda says he sometimes said words backwards, so her name became “yak adlen.” I remember him walking through house saying things like “cha, cha, babe!” to my mother or singing “Hey, good lookin’. Whatcha got cooking?” He was an engineer, a pastor, a church builder, and a family man.
Next to him, sharing a headstone and a small piece of ground, is Alta Ruth Lucus – Mom. Born in Bee Creek, Texas, one of her sisters delivered her because the doctor could not get there in time. The community’s only bridge had been washed out by a storm described as a “frog strangler.” When she was eight years old, she worked in cotton fields earning as much as a grown man. On Saturday nights, when her large family drove to town, she would jump out of the car and take her earnings straight to the movie theater. Armed with a hard-earned bar of chocolate, for a few hours she escaped from the cotton fields and the home where she killed chickens for dinner and cared for her younger siblings. I remember Mom telling me she once rode a cow and was chased by a black snake while playing in a field. In her early 50s, she went to college to earn her degree in accounting, but leukemia stopped her from achieving her goal.
Empty tree branches sway overhead as I stroll back to my car through the silence of a hundred years of history. Family cemeteries are special places where, in years gone by, people often gathered to honor their dead. They made a day of it, washing down fried chicken and biscuits with mason jars of sweet tea. While the men napped and the children played among the tombstones, the women remembered.
As I drive away from my family cemetery, I carry with me the essence of the people I knew and loved. Even those I’ve never met are a part of me. I see them in picture albums, in my memories, and in my children’s faces. I remember the stories lovingly told by family members. But I am sad for other visitors to the cemetery. They don’t know that Lucille Lucus wrote stories and poems until she was well past age 90, or that Alta Lucus secretly dreamed of becoming a Le Mans race car driver.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing