Friday, July 24, 2009

Tears in the Graveyard

My first experience visiting a cemetery for genealogical research came in October, 2008 when my daughter and I traveled to Harmony, New York in search of information about Timothy Jenner, Ruth Hurlbut, Moses Johnson Jenner (son of Timothy and Ruth), and Moses German Jenner (son of Moses J.). We were specifically trying to find ironclad documentation of Moses German Jenner's birth, since all we had at the time were notations in my grandmother's Jenner family Bible.

We were supposed to meet a representative of the Harmony Historical Society at their offices that morning. They were preparing for the annual Harvest Festival in North Harmony and we were told they would be outside getting set up. We arrived about 11:00 AM only to find no one there. It was drizzling at the time and we later learned that they had headed to a nearby coffee shop for shelter and an early lunch, hoping the weather would improve while they were eating. Since it wasn't the nicest weather, my daughter and I decided to drive around the area and get the lay of the land, rather than stand around getting wet.

So we headed south on Open Meadows Road. We had gone no more than a mile or two when we saw a sign identifying the Blockville Union Burying Ground. The sign said it had been established in 1828, so we pulled in on a hunch that we might find some of our ancestors buried there. I pulled our car to what appeared to be the center of the cemetery. My daughter was in the passenger seat so I told her, "You take that [the right] side and I'll take this [the left] side. Yell if you find anything." We opened our doors and stepped out.

"Here they are!" my daughter immediately announced, "You parked right next to them."

I was still gathering up my camera and notepad and bumped my head on the door-frame when I looked up to see where she was pointing. There they were: a half-dozen aged headstones all in a row. My daughter was pointing to one in particular. "Here's Timothy." She moved to the next headstone as I was walking around the car to join her. "And here's Ruth," she announced with growing excitement. She moved to the next headstone while I was still walking toward her. "And here's Alcena." Just as I reached her side, she made a little whimpering sound I will never forget. "Oh my God, Daddy," she said in a quavering voice, "She was only nine years old." Tears were welling up in her eyes. "Daddy that's awful," she said, snuffling back her tears and wiping them from her cheeks.

That was the moment genealogy suddenly became intensely personal for me. As I write this I am fighting back my own tears, as happens every time I recall that moment. The hurt on my daughter's face and in her voice is more than I can bear, even in memory. Michaela has always been sensitive to the suffering of others -- especially children -- and little Alcena Jenner was no exception. We have talked at length about that moment, and it was also the moment that genealogy became personal for her.

It is no longer simply tracking down and recording names, dates, places, and events in a notebook or software application. It is the process of discovering and understanding the lives of those who traveled before us and brought us to this point in time. Through it, we glimpse their hearts and minds, their dreams and ambitions, their hardships and sufferings, and come to appreciate them as members of our own family -- now gone, but not forgotten, and no longer taken for granted.

Like most others of their generation, Timothy and Ruth (Hurlbut) Jenner, ventured out into a vast and dangerous land in search of a dream. It wasn't a dream of conquest and wealth; merely a dream to build a life that was just a little better for themselves and their children than it had been for their parents. They chased that dream by risking their lives for a tract of land just large enough to sustain them, working from dawn to dusk under constant exposure to possible attack by beasts, outlaws, or hostile tribes, while enduring the hardships of a harsh and unforgiving environment. And along the way, they would bury several of their own children before they reached adulthood. Michaela, then 13, began to truly understand their struggles that day.

That was the day that, for both of us, "frontiers people" and "pioneers" ceased being anonymous images in history books and movies and became ancestors we are proud of and grateful for.


  1. Len,
    Thanks so much for sharing this story. I think many of us have had similar moments when the pursuit of genealogy became personal. How wonderful that you and your daughter shared this experience. My dad was my research partner until his death. It's a special journey for a father and daughter to travel together.

  2. I hope it brought back good memories for you. Thanks for visiting!