In the last few years, I’ve been discovering that the hats I’ve worn in past years—teacher, genealogist, historian—are morphing into yet another hat—writer. I grew up (quite literally) at my grandfather’s knee. Born in 1873, he had lived much of the history I studied from books. He spun tales of family while I scribbled names, dates, and all the pertinent details he could remember. Over the years, those hasty notes evolved into multiple folders of information, a virtual library of ideas for characters and plots.
I often joke that I raised my boys in courthouses and cemeteries. They shared my passion for finding our past in those places.
I still find cemeteries to be places of incredible though poignant peace. When I wander among tombstones, looking for those pertinent to my family lines, my mind is filled with questions about the choices of epitaphs and marker styles and the souls who rest under green grass or barren soil. Sadder, of course, are the neglected plots in public ground, more commonly known as Potters Field. What circumstances brought them there? Poverty? Lack of family? Something beyond imagination? I never fail to come away with at least one story idea.
Recently I visited an historic cemetery in Arkansas where over 200 Confederate graves markers—most of them reading simply ‘Unknown’ stand at attention, silent sentinels of ground fought for and lost. As I stood there on the quiet, grassy slope, I felt I was listening for 200 separate stories begging to be told—fathers and sons, brothers, cousins, friends and neighbors. But they are The Unknown, and their stories will never be told.
On the same trip, I walked through a pioneer cemetery established by the early residents of an area that later served as the Confederate capital of the state until Union forces moved in. Most of the stones are blackened with age, but the ones that are not shout triumphantly of long life—or weep for life ended too soon. Stories, not just names.
This week I was privileged to attend an archaeologist’s presentation of work being done on two very old cemeteries discovered within the boundaries of Hot Springs National Park. A few legible markers helped date the burial grounds. Only fieldstones marked many other nameless souls. Who were they, and what are their stories?
Wait, you say, we are writers, not genealogists nor historians nor archaeologists. This is a morbid topic, even disrespectful of those who have gone before. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In acknowledging death, we are honoring LIFE with remembrance...and for those who lie unremembered, with compassion. And, as writers, we consider their untold stories and somehow make them ours to tell…and they live on.
In 1916, American poet, biographer, and dramatist Edgar Lee Masters published Spoon River Anthology (Signet Classics), a book of poetry ‘spoken’ by the inhabitants of the Spoon River Cemetery.
Journalist and World War II correspondent Quentin Reynolds wrote Known but to God. The Unknown Soldier in 1960, creating hypothetical characters for those who would forever remain unknown.
About the author ~
Besides writing, Judy enjoys genealogical research, reading, travel, and meeting new people. She has two grown sons and two granddaughters.
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Her latest book ~
After thirty years of marriage, Jean Kingston is freshly divorced and rediscovering the joys of being an independent woman as well a talent for interior design. Having a new man in her life is not part of the plan. Nick Cameron, prominent attorney and long-time widower, would like to change Jean's mind and include him in her plans. Their adult children don't approve of either plan, and are determined to keep Jean and Nick apart. Does their opposition include staging personal attacks against them? Could they really be desperate enough to stalk the couple on a weekend getaway? Or is there a deeper evil at work?
Read an excerpt ~
Nick pulled her closer. “Jeannie, I’m so sorry.”
“I hated Rand for what he did. For a long time, I wished he’d died instead of my baby.”
“Shhh, shhh…it’s all right.”
“I knew what a heartless, selfish bastard he was, and still I stayed with him…let him back into my bed… and I don’t know why. I feel so dirty.”
“You’re not. You’re not dirty, Jeannie.”
“You loved Sarah. You were faithful to her. It isn’t fair she died, and I can’t be what she was. You can’t keep on with me and lose your son.”
“I love you for yourself,” he said, realizing, for now at least, she was past reassurance.
The red numbers on the clock radio read a quarter to three before Jean cried herself to sleep in his arms. A lifetime of tears, Nick thought. She’s shed a lifetime of tears tonight. He closed his eyes. She’s got to know I understand that kind of loss, and somehow we’ve got to get past it, both of us, and go on. He laid her back on her own pillow and pulled the cover over her shoulders. Someone wants to keep us both imprisoned in our pasts. If we don’t find out who, we’ll never have a future.
Watch the trailer ~
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