We scrambled over an ancient stone wall, the Kentucky kind built with limestone gathered from the hayfields, stacked and held together only with sweat. The first thing I saw in this abandoned, holy place was the giant cross, one rugged tree felled by an old wind, come to rest without design at a perfect right angle across the midsection of another. The old conundrum flitted through my mind: if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Can the dead hear?
The dry, decaying smell of a country autumn mingled with the smell of our sweat. It had been a long, warm walk up the hill to this forgotten walled garden, the grave markers hidden by wildflowers growing undisturbed by scythe or cow.
“Wildflowers?” he said. “Weeds I’d call them, ragweed and ironweed.”
“Well, maybe so, but still, they’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
We’d come to explore this old country graveyard not far from our farm in Owen County. It's called the Sebree Cemetery in recent historical inventories, perhaps because the Sebree family heirs owned the surrounding farmland for decades. The only marked graves, however, connect to a man named Joseph Abbott, unrelated to the Sebree family as far as I can determine, and unrelated to me. He did, however, own many acres of land on Eagle Creek in the early 19th Century, and thus figures into the early history of this rural community.
It was Joseph Abbott’s descendants who’d come the year before, traveled from Atlanta, they said, to pull the old stones out of the earth. They’d cleaned them as best they could, and righted those that were leaning. Some, separated by time and nature from their original sites, they’d propped against scattered trees, orphaned, alone.
It was one of those orphaned stones that had lured me here. “We dug a thin, smooth rock out of the ground, covered by several feet of mud,’ my correspondent wrote. “It was scribed as follows: Polina Hudson Died (illegible day and month) 1850. Note: both N’s were carved backwards.” For decades, genealogists thought Polina Abbott Hudson was buried in an unmarked grave, but now these men from Georgia claimed to have found her headstone. I wanted to see it for myself.
I wanted to see it on behalf of my mother, too, who had been fascinated by Polina’s poignant story, and repeated it to me many times. For reasons difficult to explain to those who do not ponder such things, it bothered Mother that poor Polina was buried in an unmarked grave.
Polina was Joseph Abbott’s daughter and my g-g- grandfather Silas Hudson’s first wife. Described by her contemporaries as “a good Christian woman” she supposedly persuaded her husband Silas, “who liked to drink too much,” to right the course of his life. Under her influence, he went on to become a well-known minister and lawyer in the area. He lived into his eighties, respected, even revered, and is buried in the Methodists’ well-kept cemetery beneath a towering, elaborate stone.
Polina, however, died at age 30. She left behind eight children. Her newborn son survived her by only a few months. Soon after the baby’s death, Polina’s fifteen-month-old Helena toppled from her high chair and burned to death in the open fireplace. I can only imagine the despair that swamped Silas in 1850 as he lost his wife, Polina, and then in quick succession their two youngest children. Perhaps it was desperation, rather than love, that pushed him to re-marry in late 1851. His second wife, my double great-grandmother, would raise Polina’s surviving children and bear Silas eight more.
We waded through the knee-high flowers looking for whomever we could find, but with an eye out for Polina. We found the newest graves first, the ones dating to the 1880s. Those markers were marble, ornately carved by a stonecutter in prosperous times. The oldest graves dated to the early 1840s. These were marked by fieldstones from the surrounding hills, names and dates crudely gouged out by a knife.
“Here it is,” he said, when we’d nearly given up. Leaning against a hackberry tree on the far side of the graveyard, Polina’s headstone was concealed by the tall flowering weeds. I bent to feel the smooth, ancient rock with my hands, my finger tracing the faint letters of her name, POLINA HUDSON. My touch lingered on the two backward N’s, on the date, 1850. Who had dug these letters and numbers into a fieldstone so long ago? Her grieving husband Silas? One of her children?
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of these family cemeteries dot Kentucky's rural countryside. Some have succumbed to creeping vegetation, livestock or vandals. But most endure with occasional help from a distant relative or a kind neighbor. Why? Why do they endure? Why does some odd soul in each succeeding generation step forward to whack away at the bushes, to pull the fallen stones from the ground? I'm not sure. We're a curious lot, those of us who love and respect old cemeteries.
Perhaps we've glimpsed how brief our time here on earth will be, and so we come to affirm both the importance of individual life and the flow of all life through the generations. Or perhaps, like me, we come to weep for the Art -- the effort – the names and dates hand chiseled into fieldstones even as crops called for tending and babies cried to eat.
The giant cross, formed by fallen trees, lay in a patch of sunlight as the sun eased lower in the west. It was time for us to go. I traced the backward Ns with my finger one more time. It is Polina Abbott Hudson’s land, inherited from her father, that I call home, the farm where I grew up, that I still own. “Thank you,” I whispered, in case the dead aren’t deaf.
Copyright © May 2015 Georgia Green Stamper