LAST RESPECTS AND BURNING QUESTIONS
I had rode my motorcycle into Rochester Cemetery only once before today. It was on July 26, 2013 when I came to lay my mothers ashes to rest between the graves of her parents. Rochester Cemetery sits on a hill on Menninger Road on the northwest outskirts of Topeka, Kansas. The cemetery was chartered in 1850 and is the final resting place of Kansans, not Kansans and everyone else in between. It is also the final resting place of 14 members of my family. Someday my earthly remains will rest within the grounds of Rochester Cemetery.
As I maneuvered the big Harley Ultra Classic up the steep drive and into the cemetery I wondered if the thump, thump, thump of the big V-Twin was disturbing the dead. Silver Streak, the name I christened my motorcycle with, navigated the tight, thin roads of the cemetery. “C’mon Silver, I urged the bike, let’s find Stanley.
Stanley is a large memorial stone on a family grave plot. The white stone features a palm leaf and the word Stanley carved beneath the leaf. Stanley has been the marker I have used since a child to locate the graves of my grandparents and now my mother. Stanley is directly across the road from their resting places and without him I would have a harder time of finding them within the maze of cemetery roads. We located Stanley and I saluted the stone, “Thank You Stanley.”
As I shut off Silver Streak the tick, tick, tick of the cooling engine replaced the sound of the crickets that would normally be heard in the cemetery during the summer months. But on this early day in March the children of crickets past were sleeping below the ground within their tiny eggs. I dismounted the bike and headed across the road towards my mother and grandparents graves.
As I approached the graves I was pleased to see that the marker I had set for my mother had weathered the rough winter well. It made me feel good that even if I was never able to afford the marker she had dreamed of at least my humble effort would endure for years to come. I knelt down and placed my right hand on the marker and my left hand on the spot on the ground where my mothers ashes lay beneath. I knelt in silence trying to calm my heart which was in turmoil. I had come to the cemetery that day to seek advice from my ancestors. I had things in my life that were troubling me and I needed their wisdom.
There are those who will say, “The dead do not speak.” But they would be wrong. The dead speak loudly if you just take the time to listen. I spoke my concerns to my grandfather and grandmother and while waiting for their response I turned to my mother. I leaned on her cross and looked up to the sky. “Mom, I really do not know why I am asking your advice. You usually get sidetracked when faced with a hard subject and never give a straight answer. But I am going to assume that once you got to heaven they fixed that flaw and you can listen and give straight answers.” I told my mother what was on my mind.
I knelt with my head down in silence. The cemetery was still, not even the sound of an early Robin chirp broke that silence. After long moments I looked up and around. My eyes wandered down the hill towards the low area of the cemetery. In all the years I had visited here I had never been down the hill to the tree line beyond the graves. I stood up and I wandered in that direction.
Walking through the gaps between the numerous graves I crossed the lower road and winding my way through a small section of graves I found myself at the tree line. Through the trees I could see a small pond. Walking through the trees and down the embankment I stood on the edge of the pond. It was obvious that it had been constructed as a runoff for the cemetery. How long in the past the pond had been made only the spirits of the cemetery knew. Towards the south end of the pond was a drive. A large pile of gravel and raw dirt rested there. On the north end of the pond a large tree had fallen across the expanse somewhere in the past. Woodpeckers had pocked its surface and its branches that reached into the pond no doubt created a haven for small aquatic creatures; salamanders, frogs, insects and maybe even minnows.
I stood and looked at the still waters of the pond and the tree. This simple pond next to a cemetery was a symbolic example of the circle of life. Life sprung forth then death came. From death came life which thrived and eventually died giving life to a new generation; a never ending and vital circle. A bright red Cardinal landed on the dead tree and cocked its small pointed head at me as if to put a punctuation mark on my thoughts. The small bird took one hop towards me and then flew away to signal that it was time for me to move away from the pond.
I headed back up the embankment and wound my way through the graves. I paused a moment at my mother and grandparents graves. I touched my mothers cross marker and smiled. I liked the marker, Though just a couple of feet high it resembled the type of stone markers that you would find on ancient graves in Europe. My family had migrated from Germany to America so this cross marking the grave of a Hummel seemed appropriate and right. I said, “Bye Mom, Bye Grandpa, Bye Grandma. Wish I could have known you Grandpa. Miss you Grandma, Miss you Mom. Love you all.” I moved away and returned to the road. I still did not have the answer to my questions and I had other ancestors to visit.
As I walked up the road I passed the graves of Samuel and Amanda Dykes. I stopped and said hello to Grandma and Grandpa Dykes. Sam and Amanda are the parents of my Aunt Patricia, the wife of my Uncle Karl. Karl Hummel is my mothers brother and passed in April of 2020 after a long fight with cancer. Though the Dykes were not blood they were still family and out of respect I was taught when a child to call them Grandma and Grandpa. The house they once owned sits just a couple of blocks from my home. I have found memories of stopping by that house to visit with them. But what I remember most was Sam’s Harmonica playing.
Samuel Dykes carried a briefcase with his various harmonica’s inside. A couple of times a month Sam was asked to come forward to the church podium and play a hymn on his harmonica. Angels could not have sang those hymns more beautifully than Samuel Dykes played them on his harmonicas. Sam passed away suddenly in 1964 and left many people grieving his loss, myself included. I was just 8 years old at the time and the passing of Samuel Dykes was the first time I had to deal with the loss of someone I cared about.
I noticed that Sam’s Birthday was on March 4th. Today was March 2nd and I would not be back in the cemetery to wish him a Happy Birthday on the 4th so I said, “Happy Birthday Grandpa Dykes.” I bid him and Grandma Dykes farewell and moved on up the road. As I walked away I smiled; I like to imagine that God calls Sam up to the podium every Sunday to play a hymn and show the Angels how their voices should sound.
I stopped at the graves of my Great Aunt Harriet and my Great Uncle Karl Hummel, my Uncle Karl’s namesake. Next to them is the grave of Lucien Vick. He is a relative but how I do not know. My Great Aunt Harriet was the first woman ever stationed at the Kodiak Base Naval Station on Kodiak Island in Alaska. My Great Uncle Karl was a singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I paid my respects and moved off to visit the gravesites of their parents, my Great Grandparents, Walter and Priscilla Hummel.
I stood at the graves of my Great Grandparents and my head bowed. Walter had been the first Livery and Tack maker in Topeka making mule harnesses for the 7th Calvary. Priscilla had been a devoted wife and mother giving birth to Harriet, Lucius, Karl, Ralph and Oscar, my Grandfather. I spoke my questions to them then remained silent, listening. In a few moments my head turned and I looked towards the gravesite of my Great Uncle Ralph Hummel and his wife Buena Vista, the namesake of Buena Vista, Arkansas.
Between the graves of my Great Grandparents and the Graves of my Great Uncle are two empty spots. Someday those spots will not be empty, they will be where me and my wife Raychel will be laid to rest. As I looked at the empty spots the answers to the questions that had been troubling me suddenly flooded into my head. I now knew that my ancestors had spoken to me and had answered my questions. Now with those answers my turbulent mind and heart knew peace. I sighed and said, “Thank you, I knew you would help.”
I believe strongly in the power of prayer and I believe God answers prayer. I also believe that he sends his Angels to help us in our time of turmoil. The Angels he sent this day were the ones that were responsible for giving me my life. Life sprung forth then death came. From death came life which thrived and eventually died giving life to a new generation; a never ending and vital circle. I had one more stop to make before leaving Rochester Cemetery.
I stood in front of the grave graves of my Uncle Karl Lennox Hummel and my cousin Deanna Hummel. My cousin Deanna had been a police officer in Shawnee Mission, Kansas and had been murdered by a drunk driver while on duty. My Uncle Karl having succumbed to the cancer on April 28, 2020 had been laid to rest next to his daughter with no memorial service.
The Coronavirus Pandemic robbed many families of their chance to say goodbye to loved ones. I shook my head feeling a mixed emotion of sadness and anger at those that deny the Pandemic. They claim the virus is not real, they refuse to practice social distancing and refuse to wear masks. Many are refusing to take the vaccine. They wallow in their ignorance and inconsideration of others shouting, “We are exercising our rights”, while violating the rights of others. Here before me was a victim of the Pandemic. It is true that my Uncle died from cancer but he was denied his right to have his family come together and say goodbye because of the Pandemic. How many more must suffer this indignity because people refuse to do the right thing?
I knelt down and placed my hand on the long flat stone that bore the names of Karl, Deanna and Patricia Hummel. My Aunt Pat is not here yet and hopefully it will be a long time before she is. But her spot is waiting for her next to her husband. Karl, Deanna and my cousin Lenny who passed away during a bicycle race years ago when a car ran him off the road and over a cliff will be waiting for her at Heaven’s gate. My Aunt Pat shares a birthday with my sister thus being my sister Patricia’s namesake.
I was happy that I was finally able to pay my respects to my Uncle Karl. He loomed large in my life when I was a child. Partial owner of a bicycle shop, he gave me my first bicycle, a Huffy. He also made an 8’ by 4’ board into the home of a Lionel Train set for me on my 7th Christmas. Family gatherings featured my Uncle Karl and Aunt Pat along with their seven children, my cousins. My cousins and I spent many a summer afternoon in a field near their home on Massachusetts street collecting grasshoppers and fireflies in jars. Uncle Karl and Aunt Pat had offered to raise me because of my mothers mental condition but she refused. I have often wondered who I would have become if I had been raised in that family. Yet I realize that I am exactly who I am meant to be.
I last saw my Uncle Karl on July 26, 2013 when I laid my mother to rest. He stood by me at the graveside as we sang Amazing Grace which my Mom had requested. We spoke and caught up with each other before he left me to say my final goodbyes to my mother, his sister. When I left Texas and moved back to Topeka in November 2013 I thought several times about contacting him and my Aunt Pat. But somehow I felt like I would be an intrusion because of the years that had passed between us. I never contacted them instead keeping track of their lives through my cousin Scott and my Aunt pat’s Facebook page. In 2015 I led the team that restored Animal Land in Gage park. My Aunt Pat sent me a short message that simply stated, “Your Uncle Karl is proud of you.” That meant a lot to me.
I rose from the grave and said, “Well Uncle Karl, looks like I have to buy more flowers from now on.” I had made a vow years ago that as long as I was alive my relatives, buried in Rochester Cemetery would have flowers on their graves. I place flowers on my grandparents and mothers graves. Flowers are laid on the graves of Grandma and Grandpa Dykes. I place flowers on the graves of Lucien Vick, Great Aunt Harriet and Great Uncle Karl. My great Grandparents get flowers as does Ralph, Buena Vista and Lucius Hummel. I have always left flowers at Deanna’s grave and now I will leave them at Uncle Karl’s grave. I wonder if anyone will ever lay flowers at my grave.
I returned to Silver Streak filled with a mixture of melancholia and joy. I had finally had the answers to my burning questions and I had finally had a chance to pay my respects to my Uncle Karl. As I put back on my riding gear I surveyed the cemetery. Rochester is an odd mixture of an old peaceful cemetery and a dark gothic burial ground. There are portions of the cemetery whose serenity gives way to a place where the living dead would be at home. I like the feel, I like the contrast. It feels like life not death.
As I mounted the big Harley and prepared to start it a Robin alighted on top of Stanley’s Stone and sang to me. “Ah, there you are.” I said. I started the bike and the Robin watched me ride away and out of this hallowed ground. I left with the knowledge that love is eternal.
-The GYPSY- March 8, 2021