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Never Met a Stranger: Graves

By T.W. Burger

On those rare occasions that I visit the small town where I was born, I find myself visiting graves, particularly those of my mother and father.

This probably inspired me to sign up for one of those online genealogical sites. I puttered around with it from time to time with tepid interest.

Something in the past few months has sharpened my interest. Now, most evenings are spent noodling around in the births, marriages and deaths of Burgers, Millers (Who KNEW there were so many?) Rapps, Redmonds, Dahringers, and so on.

A smattering of Revolutionary War veterans, flocks of Civil War veterans on both sides. I had hoped to escape having an ancestor that owned other humans, but, alas, one showed up in Virginia.

Naturally, I hope to come upon somebody famous in the tangled branches, but so far, no luck.

The resting places of my immediate kin, to use the mildly poetic term, nestle into the side of a ridge looking down to a sweet little river called Shenango. The word means “Pretty One” in the language of the local natives. My parents used to swim in and boat on it. Dad fished it, and mom gathered watercress there.

The reasons I go there are complicated.

As much as I would like to think of mom and dad looking down over that peaceful place, I do not. They are not there in any sense. A cemetery resembles an auto scrap yard, full of busted, abandoned machinery, the organic equivalents of gears and pulleys, rusted chrome, faded glory.

In the online world I have found no statespersons, poets, or artists, but I have found stories aplenty.

A great-grandfather on my mother’s side was beaten to death with a bucket while living in the county home.

A great-great-granddad on my father’s side was sitting in his office at the steel mill after a day’s work when his wife stuck a shotgun in the open window and blew his brains out. She had taken out a hefty insurance policy on him a few months earlier.

Slave-owners, murderers and their victims…not a great start.

What I get when I go to that cemetery is what I pack in with me. My precursors’ scraps lie there static in their narrow boats; I come as the froth on the tide, ever changing.

I come to reassemble my memories of them, especially my parents, and hold those up to the mirror of who I am at that moment, still managing to be surprised that what I see is different and new. Each time I am easier on them, harder on myself, for not seeing certain truths earlier; that their errors came from the simple truth that they had no idea how to raise children, as their own parents had not; that they were fallible more than anything else.

I write this without rancor. It is the way of things, a crapshoot. The dice are loaded, and the table is uneven, the gods of fortune drunk and disorderly. We have been baptized in the errors, miscues and abuses that came before.

As I sit on the headstone of another relative, I ponder that it is amazing that every soul that awakes on this rock spinning a tarantella around this sun is anything other than a new edition of Alfred E. Neuman or Adolph Hitler.

And yet, an astounding number of us rise from all this wreckage to be artists, poets, authors, great statespersons, teachers…. despite ferocious odds to the contrary.

I still hope that I will find some of those in my own tree, unpromising as it may seem at the moment. 

It is probable that in the teeming masses of ordinary people on this scarred world there are new heroes in larval form awaiting to be born as the rest of us shuffle toward Armageddon.

I hope they hurry.

T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

Semi-retired and residing in Pennsylvania, Burger is still working as a contributing writer for Classic City News and various other publications, and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek, just outside of Gettysburg.


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Terry you are at your best with this one. I need to learn some new adjectives before I write again! Bravo!

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Excellent prose, Terry.

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Unknown member
Dec 15, 2023

Mr. Burger, I live in Athens, and I believe you were a significant person in my beloved "stepson's" life. I hesitate to call him this, because he is fully in my head and heart a true and real son. I've shared your articles with him. Your writing has meaning to both of us in different ways. Most people's heritage, I believe, is full of complexities. Our heritages may be intriguing, but they don't make us who we are.

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