A Story in Response to Billybuc Photo Challenge Prompt Installment 1
It was just another writing gig, and she took every gig she could get. A picture prompt this time, write a thousand words for a local online rag. Easy peas-y. Or so she thought. She'd written it all, hard news, soft news, fake news, you name it. Obituaries were her specialty. Same old format, different names.
But this was a special assignment, a contest promising big rewards, an all expenses paid trip to Tahiti, and guaranteed readership by millions of online viewers. A chance at the big time. It could be the break she'd been waiting for, accolades and exposure; every writer's dream.
The prompt had her stymied at first. A headstone in a meadow of wildflowers. A sense of peaceful finality? Death of course. Life and death.
The road was long. That she knew. And the fact that she may not find what she was looking for made it seem even longer; the road back to the beginning of her story.
She had a goal in mind, to find the final resting place of her long-dead Great-Grandfather who she had never met (who died before she was born?). A family-tree quest turned obsession, leading her onward into the past.
She had so little to go on, couldn't speak the language, didn't comprehend the scale of the changes that had occurred, and she had no written record she could read even if there was one to find.
There were only a few scraps of information passed down in the family. A beautiful handwritten genealogy chart her Mother had started in the red leather bound book of family medicine (ointment for burns, treatment and cures for childhood illnesses like measles, and whooping cough and chicken pox).
Strange that she felt that she knew him. Was he pictured in the photographs she remembered as a child? Lost now, like so much of her past in the flotsam and jetsam of intervening generations' relinquishing ties to the past in their constant moving and uprooting.
She thought she remembered seeing a photo of a man in a cap and a dark brooding face with a pencil thin mustache. In a ship manifest online she found him listed as a passenger, a 'soldier' was the occupation he gave. Small clues.
According to the ship's manifest he was travelling alone, and disembarked at Ellis Island. What would he feel setting foot in a new world? Joy? Relief? Anticipation? The document gave no indication of his mood. She had to imagine he felt excited.
In the next manifest she found he was accompanied by his wife and seven children. So he must have staked out the territory, then returned to fetch his family once arrangements were made for them to join him.
What did they leave behind? Were they sad to leave friends? To leave their home? Or did they just manage to escape with their lives, and a few belongings they could bring? Did they worry about learning a new language? Were they treated well where they went?
They settled in the West. He worked as a miner. The children married. One son went to war. Then they moved to the coast. The whole family followed. By the time she was born there were four generations in the same small city, but he was gone. She didn't remember him. His wife she recalled vaguely, a white-haired old woman in a wheel chair, on a visit to the city (she had been expecting skyscrapers and was disappointed and sulking when they arrived (in the car) at a small suburban house on a quiet suburban street).
The daughters (her Great Aunts) were there, with their straight long brown hair. And the children were sent outside to play in the garden. Children were to be seen and not heard, so possibly they didn't even speak, or were told to hush if they did. She remembered that it felt very strange and serious somehow. Perhaps the Great Grandfather had recently passed away. They probably wouldn't have discussed that in front of the children.
She was never satisfied, not knowing what had transpired in the lives of these ancestors. She was dismayed that their stories could be lost so easily, and made a pledge to dig a little deeper into their history, to honor them perhaps? Or maybe to understand herself a little better.
She wanted to bring the past to life, to understand how it had shaped the present.
Searching online she found horrific stories that haunted her, of people who were not able to flee, who starved, and died in the Holodomor. She found a history that was never taught in her history classes. It shocked and frightened her to realize that there had been a genocide that was largely ignored, and forgotten even as it was happening.
Online she found birth certificates and death notices, census records, and marriage announcements, an easy trail to follow in English, but the trail grew murky and disappeared in the old country with the language barrier, and the wars and political turmoil that had displaced people over and over again through the years. It was an impossible task.
So if she couldn't find his history, if she couldn't know anything about his life, she decided the least she could do was find his grave, and pay him a visit, and this she did.
It was a sweet summery day in May. The birds were singing in the chirpy way birds do. The wildflowers were fresh and bright. The sun was warm as she approached his stone in the old church yard cemetery. She read the inscription, saw that his wife was buried next to him with a little plaque, engraved as well. Names, birth and death, that was it. There was no story to be found here either.
But there was a sense of place, and a sense of closure. There was a sense of relief knowing that this couple who were forced to flee a war torn land, had in the end found a peaceful place to rest.
© 2020 Verlie Burroughs