Wandering in the Past

Pam Molnar is a freelance writer and amateur genealogist. Her essays and articles have been published in the U.S., Canada and Australia. “I continue wandering in the past, wondering where it will lead me.”

Driving down Roosevelt Road through Hillside, Illinois, commuters nd themselves surrounded by two large cemeteries. Mount Carmel sits on the north side while Queen of Heaven stretches out to the south. The Catholic cemeteries are the final resting places of many of Chicago’s infamous gangsters, Cardinals and politicians, as well as the everyday people who lived in Chicago and the surrounding area since 1901.

To me, an amateur genealogist and family history enthusiast, cemeteries are not a place of great sadness, nor the setting for a horror lm. It is a life sized history book where some of the pages appear clean and crisp while others are stained and well-worn. As you enter the stone gated entrance of either cemetery, you will nd a large, well-kept garden, carpeted in green grass as far as the eye can see. Stone monuments and statues dot the horizon, marking the final resting place of nearly 400,000 people.

Mature trees are scattered throughout the cemetery. Their towering limbs protect the gravesites from Chicago’s unforgiving weather. Many of the trees have been planted by the animals who frequent the cemetery landscape, and in exchange for their planting, they oer a home to the squirrels, raccoons and birds. As the years pass, these animals are often the only visitors to countless older graves.

There is a unique beauty in the artistry of cemetery monuments. Sculptors were hired by heartbroken family members to create likenesses of their loved ones, many which have outlasted the lifetime of those they are depicting. Others etch their stories in stone – beloved mother, faithful friend, brave soldier. Snow and rain darken the monuments over time. It is nature’s nod to the grieving family. I am consoled by the green moss that has grown on the shaded side of some stones. Life goes on, even though the light is now dim.

The tumbled and cracked grave stones sadden me. Was it caused by weather and erosion? Was it the act of vandals? Or worse yet, could it be the careless workmanship in the creation of the stone, taking advantage of a distressed family? I bend down to see if I can make out the names on the stone, in the hopes that saying them out loud would oer the spirits some comfort.

As I walk through the cemetery to nd my ancestors, I marvel at the rows and rows of grave markers, perfectly aligned, despite the small hills and valleys that cover over 400 acres of cemetery property. The constant hum of landscape equipment remind us of the undeniable fact that below the beautiful green grass, the residents of the cemetery are constantly fertilizing this space.

I love to find the oval picture frames that rest on the front of some grave markers. The photos of the deceased are black and white, showing stern, unsmiling faces. Do those pictures do them justice? Probably not. But as a genealogist venturing through the cemetery to a grave for the first time, they are a welcome window peering back in time. I look for signs of familiarity – a common nose, eye squint or hairline – to make a connection to the person who has lived a whole lifetime before me.

The map in my hand leads me to my last stop in the back corner of the cemetery. I stand there listening to the sounds of life invading this quiet, sacred space. Busy commuters create a steady buzz on the nearby Eisenhower Expressway. The wind carries the distant sound of Taps being played at a veteran’s funeral just over the hill. A backhoe engine hums to life just a few rows away, alerting the cemetery residents that a new member will soon join their club.

I have reached the final resting place of my great-great grandparents and I am surprised by the dierence in their separate headstones. The grandmother’s, who passed away first in 1920, is at least six feet tall with carvings on all four sides and a picture of her on the front. Thirteen years later, in the heart of the Depression, her husband’s grave is marked with a stone less than a foot tall with no more than his name and year of his birth and death.

I wonder, did he have a falling out with his children or was the smaller stone just a sign of the nancial reality of the Depression Era? Sadly, there is no one that can answer that question for me. I am left to weave their story to my liking.

I run my hand over their names, carved out of marble, and think about their children and grandchildren who gathered around in this small space years ago. My grandmother, just a child when her grandparents died, is the bridge between them and me. Long ago she held their hands and years later, she held mine.

A funeral brings family together from across the miles, many who haven’t seen each other in years. The cemetery serves as an unintentional venue for family reunions, complete with storytelling, pictures, laughter and tears. Was this the last time the whole family was together? The closing of the con lid signies so much more than the loss of one family member. Death often loosens the ties that bind families together.

As I walk to my car and make my way down the winding roads towards the exit, I feel the presence of those souls who have traveled here for the last time. They reach out to me, asking if I will take their stories with me – the ones known and the ones imagined. oughts of them follow me home where I continue wandering in the past, wondering where it will lead me.