Set in Stone

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On a Wednesday afternoon in early June, a few miles southeast of Essig, MN, I drove an empty asphalt county road past School Lake before turning north on Lakeside Road near the Cottonwood River. Gravel grumbled under the tires, and to my left a field of knee-high corn shimmering in the sun sloped down to a line of trees a half mile distant. I slowed the Jeep, pulled into a short driveway before a broad expanse of mowed grass on the right, stopped, and stepped out. In the alfalfa field that butted up against the north edge of the grass, a tractor hitched to a baler stood idling while the driver and another man standing below him talked, their voices muddled by the engine rising and falling on the breeze. I opened the tailgate and pulled out a folding chair I use for camping, a green can of Cutter insect repellant, a bottle of water, and a black case with paper and pen zippered inside. I trudged across the grass to the shade of a young walnut tree, unfolded the chair, and sat down. Then, I opened the page of typed notes I brought along, considered the stones before me, and wondered. About prairie before plows. About homesteading and typhoid, weathering and war. And about the lives of the Vollmers whose graves are marked here in Sigel Township Cemetery.

My German forebears, about whom I knew very little until about two years ago, are buried here and in cemeteries scattered around southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa. About a half mile north of Germantown, Iowa, a tiny Lutheran farm community in O’Brien County, I found the graves of my paternal great-great grandparents. One of the brown upright stones, only about a foot tall with the face slanted toward the sprawling fields to the west, gives the plain facts about my great-great grandma in four brief lines: “SOPHIA TESCH / Geb. KNUTH / Geb. 15 Mai 1829 / Gest. 22 April 1907.” While it’s not difficult to figure out that the dates mark her birth and death, the unfamiliar abbreviations sent me to a German-English dictionary. “Geb.” is short for “Geboren,” which means and even resembles the English word “born,” while “Gest.” is “Gestorben,” or “died,” from the German verb sterben, which is also related to the English word “starve.” The second line, “Geb. KNUTH,” or “born Knuth,” gives her maiden name. Like Sophia’s headstone, others in this cemetery are as tight-lipped as Germans, stating only names and dates; however, some of the older ones are more effusive, especially those that mark children’s graves and those that begin, “Hier ruhet in frieden” (“Here rests in peace”), or contain a verse from Brahms’s Requiem or the New Testament. Diedrich Pauling’s marker, for example, includes this quotation from Revelation 14:13 in German: “Selig sind die Toten / die in dem Hern / sterben. / Denn ihre Worke folgen / ihnen nach” (“Blessed are the dead / that die in the Lord. / And their works shall follow them”). This, too, despite its relative length, conveys the stoicism, the Old Country Lutheranism, and the importance of work even in death. And though I don’t share all of their qualities, these are the people from whom I come.

Of course, I can’t help wondering, too, about the small hints of human frailty and faults that might have resulted from grief or distraction or ignorance. As much as I’d like to believe that everything set in stone is the God’s-honest truth, errors occur in inscriptions just as they do in texts, e-mails, newspapers, and other types of writing. Some are simple spelling errors. Friedricke Tesch, the daughter of my great-great grandparents Friederich and Sophia, died when she was fourteen, and probably out of grief for the loss of one so young, her parents marked her grave with a small but elaborately carved headstone. Unfortunately, the engraver misspelled both parents’ names. Sophia’s maiden name Knuth appears as “Kunth,” and in place of the father’s name, “Friederich,” is the similar but feminine form Friedricke, his daughter’s name. Inscribed dates can’t always be trusted, either. A few miles east of Germantown, in the Prairie View Cemetery, my grandparents John and Metha Koch are buried next to their first child, Elmer, who was born on 10 January 1913. Even though the Paullina Times states that he died only five days later, the headstone gives his date of death as January 15, 1915. Was the engraver so distracted that he duplicated the day of death when cutting the year? Did Elmer’s parents not notice the error? Did they notice but couldn’t be distracted by something so minor in light of their loss? Did they not see the stone until weeks or months later when they could finally bring themselves to visit his grave? Or was it simply a practical matter, that the expense of replacing and re-cutting the stone was prohibitive? Now, over a hundred years later, the inscription suggests that John and Metha enjoyed the child Elmer for two full years, not just five dark days.

And this is what really interests me: the missing details of people’s lives and deaths that are only hinted at or summarized in documents and then hidden away in the brevity of stone. Did my 59-year-old great-great grandma Anna Rossbach Vollmer, whose nineteen-year-old son Wilhelm died of typhoid fever only three weeks before she died, succumb to the same disease? What exactly happened that caused Grandpa Meinert’s sister to walk out of the farmhouse one morning and vanish until later that day when her body was found in Lake Hendricks? What possessed Grandma Koch’s eighty-year-old nephew, whose wife died decades earlier, to hang himself in a barn where his son would find him? What caused the death in 1918 of Edith, Great grandpa Martin Vollmer’s 23-year-old niece, in Mankato, where she was probably the first in the family to attend college? And as I sit in the shade in Sigel Township Cemetery, I wonder what names are abbreviated on markers engraved with only “W.V.” and “A.H.”—or is it “A.M.”?—or the identity of the girl or young woman on whose grave a small white arched stone is weathered almost into illegibility.

I don’t know, and I may never know. But as I sit among the graves with these questions on the breeze, I’m reassured by the notion that who they were and who I am cannot be set in stone.

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