My mother's family and my dad's family were neighbours, and there must have been many youthful and yearning glances across the barbed wire fence. Three couples formed from the children of those two families. My Mom and Dad, my mother's brother Henry and dad's sister Mary Annie, and mom's sister Fannie and dad's brother Arthur. These three couples had between them nine children. That's how we ended up with nine "double" cousins, cousins which carry the same genetic background as brothers and sisters. Of the nine I'm the youngest, and as of day before yesterday only two of us are left, my brother Hall and I. Our cousin Wanda passed away Monday.
What do you say about someone you love that much? She was 18 years older than I am and she is part of my earliest memories. I remember a summer day when I was four or five, 1950 or '51. Wanda and my mom decided to pay a visit to the graves of my Clark grandparents, in decidely rural Oklahoma. Mom and Wanda took turns carrying Wanda's baby Brenda, and I got to tackle the stickers and Johnson grass (which has saw-tooth edges and cuts like a razor) on my own.
We parked and climbed over a farm gate made of iron pipe and hiked in, what seemed a very long way for my short legs. I don't remember seeing the graves, or much of anything else about the trip, but in 1982 while at a family reunion Wanda, Brenda and I decided to revisit that little graveyard.
We checked with the county but they had no knowledge of a cemetery in that area. However we knew the road it was on, or thought we did so we decided to go looking. It was July and hotter than Billy-be-damned. I drug along my nine-year-old son Zak, I guess as a witness to history.
We drove and drove. I saw a gate I thought I recognized as the one we'd climbed over 30 years before, but Wanda thought the cemetery was further on, and that it was on the other side of the road. Oh well. She was driving.
Eventually we parked and started hiking across a very rough field. We hiked, sweated and swore in most unladylike fashion. Need I say that all of us follow the family pattern for females? Short and (ahem) plump. It was hard work.
After about a half hour a farmer came along on a tractor and asked what the devil three generously endowed ladies and a little boy were doing hoofing it across his hayfield. We told him we were looking for the cemetery and he said there was no such thing on his farm. We hiked back out, turned around and went back down the road.
On my insistence we stopped at the iron gate and (why do you never have a camera when you need one?) climbed over it, at the risk of our dignity and lives. I led on like MacDuff, probably a quarter of a mile through a parched forest of post oaks and cactus. The farmer had re-joined us by now, still insisting that there was NO CEMETERY on his land. He asked us to leave. We got a bit cranky. He followed along, protesting too strongly that he knew every ince of his land and that there was NO CEMETERY!!!!
He was getting a bit cantankerous when we came to the cemetery. Evidence was strong that he was allowing his cattle to graze, a distinct no-no. He then became contrite and said he "hadn't noticed" the headstones. He promised to repair the fence and keep his cows out. I doubt that he did, but he made a show of respect anyway.
The large stone monument the family had placed at the head of my grandparent's graves was in perfect condition, as was the fence surrounding their plot. The many unprotected stones had not fared as well. We did a full survey, including noting the placement of rocks which marked graves with no identifying information.
The earliest graves were from the 1890s, our granddad's burial was the last, in 1935. The little town which the cemetery served was blown off the map by a tornado in the late 20s or early 30s, and the dead had stopped coming. Except granddad, who made the final journey from Kilgore texas, where he died, to lie beside my grandmother, who died in 1921, and by two of their infant children.
The cemetery has been duly recorded by the county now, and one hopes it will not be completely forgotten, even though the ones who lie there are fading one by one as those who knew and loved them take their own long journeys.
But those two days will live in my memory, filled with laughter and that wonderful sense of complete acceptance and belonging one rarely feels anywhere but within the family.
Go sweetly on your way Wanda Lee Clark. You have been greatly loved and you will be missed.