Memories and stories buzz around my head like flies.
I stand in a cemetery tucked back in the hills between Salem and Scottsburg. The gravestones, a dozen rows deep, stretch the length of a football field. Many tilt with age. Some are more than 200 years old.
Most of the people buried here are related to me in one way or another. My ancestors — my mother’s people — settled here prior to the War of 1812, before Indiana even was a state.
They stayed. Farm people, they made a hard living here in these small hills.
I take a knee in front of my grandfather’s grave.
He was the first in our line to get a college degree and the first to go to graduate school. To go to college at Hanover, he often walked the 35 miles or so between the family farm to that small campus perched above the Ohio River.
Money was tight. To pay his way through school, he took semesters off to teach at a one-room schoolhouse here in the hills.
He heard there was a track scholarship available for someone willing to run the mile. It was $100, a considerable sum in the early 1900s. Small and round-shouldered, my grandfather was not an athletic man, but he needed the money.
Hanover had a cinder track in those days. He couldn’t afford track shoes, so he ran barefoot. The track made his feet bleed.
But he always finished the race.
After he graduated, he began a 50-year career as a teacher, principal and Boy Scout troop leader, first in Hanover and then in Sullivan.
When he, a widower, retired, he came back to these hills to live with his sister, who also was widowed.
When I was a boy, he would bring me down here to work on the farm for a week or two. I was a city and town kid. He thought I needed to learn about country life, about farm labor.
I can’t say that he taught me much about farming that stuck, other than that it was hard work. But, in taking walks together through the fields or sitting drinking soda pop in the front room with him at the end of the day, I learned a great deal about family, about responsibility, about honoring one’s best self.
He had a teacher’s gift for gently asking the tough questions, of getting me to think about consequences and costs, about who might be hurt by something, anything, I might do.
To this day, more than 40 years later, when I am troubled or confused or unsure of which is the right course, it often is his voice I hear in my head as I think my way forward.
He died the spring of my freshman year of college. I was one of his pallbearers.
It rained before his funeral. The ground was sloppy, even treacherous, as we carried his casket to the grave. I remember thinking as we walked through the mud that making my way in world — keeping my footing — was going to be a lot harder without him.
Ever since then, when my travels take me south, I often peel off I-65 and drive over narrow country roads to this spot.
My daughter, now college age herself, once asked me why I come here so often.
I told her it was important not just to know where we’re going in life, but also to understand from where we’d come. Our stories are not just our own. Maturity comes from understanding that we are but links in a long chain of being and that we owe debts — responsibilities, duties — not just to those who will follow us, but also to those who came before.
I stand up, and then walk slowly the length of the cemetery, taking note of all the names that produced the bloodlines that flow within my veins. I come back to stand in front of Grandpa’s grave again. I bow my head in respect, gratitude and love.
Then I stride back to my car, ready to see where the road forward will carry me.
And all those who came before me and now travel with me.