The rows of white gravestones ripple like ribbons across the green hammocks. The Lebanon National Cemetery in Kentucky was officially founded in 1867. Two-hundred-and-eighty-three stones have no names, only numbers — unknown soldiers of the Civil War found their final resting place here. In section 1, site 2B, my grandmother Guyla Harrod shares the earth with her husband, Arthur. A few sections away lie Aunt Louise and Uncle Proctor. They were the only other women in my mom’s family, and I finally paid my respects to them yesterday morning.
Mama, as everyone knew my grandmother, was a 20th century American matriarch. As a young woman she sewed bathing suits at a factory; she survived breast cancer; she rolled cigarettes in a little handheld machine; and every Christmas she watched It’s a Wonderful Life. When I was a teenager, once a week I used to bring Kentucky Fried Chicken to her apartment in a retirement home in downtown Beloit, and we’d have dinner together. She grew up in Colonel Sanders territory, and the greasy fast food provided a taste of home. She died several years later. Although she was the grandparent I knew and loved the most, I didn’t make it to her funeral. Two decades later I finally said goodbye.
I brought Mama a box of KFC and some flowers. “Mom’s got allergies!” Cole shrieked as he saw me tearing up as I laid them down — apparently this is what they say on The Suite Life when Zach or Cody cry. I think Mama would like Cole, wild though he can be. He’s definitely got a streak of the frontiersman in him, Daniel Boone if not James Harrod.
I’ve never spent much time in Kentucky, but my family roots here are deep — James Harrod founded Harrodsburg, the first US town west of the Appalachians. We’re some sort of descendant of his. Not too far down these country roads, one of the greatest Americans ever was born. Cole explained who Abraham Lincoln was as we drove by his birthplace and childhood home and stopped at the Lincoln Museum: “He made it so the white people stop treating the black people badly.” Pretty close for a second grader.
I’m traveling through my past. We stopped in Oak Park, Illinois, to visit my old college-friend Yasmina, whom I haven’t seen in a couple decades. Her beauty is completely untouched by the years, and she lives in an amazing brick Prairie-style home with her lawyer husband and two children. The house was designed by Tallmadge and Watson; Bud and I were in envy of its hard-wood and leaded-glass fixtures. Then we climbed back in our van and drove through the night to Beloit, Wisconsin — the city where I grew up.
Yesterday we had lunch with my old childhood friend Mary, who looks ever more willowy and has a vise-like memory of our past. Then it was back on the Wisconsin highways to Waupaca, where my dad and his wife have doubled their “cabin,” and where we’re celebrating her birthday today, and Dad’s upcoming 75th in August. My brothers are here, it’s raining out, and everyone is doing their own thing: Cole watching TV, Paul making a puzzle, Bud looking at wood, John and Judy looking for a missing coat hanger, and me, typing.