Monday, November 26, 2012

Ozark Mountains, 2012

Arkansas hasn't always been a part of my life. It was fated to become that way, though.

The Ozark Mountains was my grandfather's birthplace. And though he would leave there to find work, a good woman, and make a family elsewhere, it didn't much matter that he didn't come home. Arkansas, and those mountains, waited.

Two years ago, in April 2010, my sister Dyan and I made the trip. Dyan had been busy researching Millsaps family history, and wanted to do some work at the local Jasper County courthouse. As I've said before in previous posts, I was fresh from a emotionally bruising divorce (is there any other kind?) and looking to find a firm footing in family, even if it meant looking to the past.

Since then, we've been three other times, though we've moved the trip to October, when the creek beds are low and a little easier to hike through. My dad has joined the expeditions. It's not like we needed an excuse, even family history, to come here. The land holds its own attractions:

Hurricane Creek Wilderness, Ozark National Forest
But we'd begun to hold dear the idea of getting to a lonely mountain graveyard called Sexton Cemetery. More specifically, we were interested in the resting place of Mary Jane Sexton Pellham, my great-great grandmother. Family lore held that she was an Indian woman. There seems to be little trace of her. Indeed, it's hard to even think of her as a grandmother to generations. She died when she was 26, a mother of five.

We weren't successful finding the cemetery in the first two attempts. We took the wrong and it turns out worst road in the first time, and the axles on my dad's truck will probably never be the same. Both times we weren't lost, but got hopelessly confused trying to find the location on a Forest Service map that was incorrect.

That may have been fate too. My relationship with my father has been either absent or difficult over long years, and the repeat trips to find our family's history seemed designed by a plan larger than our own to mend that. I am grateful to be at a time in my life where there is no blame to lay and no hurt to fester; and only wonder how the "failure" to find an old cemetery became "chances" for a good and loving future.

This October, the fourth trip to Arkansas and the third attempt on the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area, we made it. It was a downpour through much of it, and our boots tramped through rivulets of red clay mud, running away down-mountain in an audible, echoing flow. The weather wasn't ideal.

The cemetery was tucked into a clearing, almost at the top of the ridge. My photography is not great. The sky was dark, it was pouring rain, and I was working quickly so my camera equipment didn't get soaked. As it was, many of the photos have spots, and my camera battery drained to zero in only a couple of minutes. Dyan and I joked that it was the ghosts of family past, but the "spirit orbs" we laughed about are really only rain drops on lenses.

The cemetery has a gate, and is still maintained. It is heartbreaking to see how many tiny headstones there are, each representing an infant or child death. Here in the hills, many older graves are often marked with a plain head- and foot-stone, rather than what we think of as carved granite markers with names and dates. It takes the memories of the living to mark the grave, to name a name, otherwise the dead are truly silent, unknown:

Mary Jane Sexton Pellham, however, had a headstone. The spots are rain drops on the camera lens:

The inscription says: "As a wife devoted, As a mother affectionate, as a friend, kind and true." The anchor is a Christian symbol of hope in the future, referring to Hebrews 6:19 "...which we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, and which enters in even within the veil." Ivy is a Celtic symbol of fidelity and constancy.

There wasn't much we could bring away from the lonely little cemetery. Mary Jane couldn't tell us whether she was Native American, or why she died so young, or how she lived her life in the depth of those hills. All we really know is for sure is that she had a little girl named Bertha and she, on a fine green day in April 1921, had a baby boy who became my grandad. In between there and then and here and now I believe that I, my sister, and my dad have been making our way back. For most of our lives we just didn't know it yet.

Instead, in the opposite sense of shaking the dust of a place off one's feet (or in this case, scraping the mud off boots), I picked up a few stones from the creek on my way back out to civilization. I like to think they had lain there since my great-great grandmother was a young barefoot girl. They are little reminders of how place connects us, not just by lines on a map, but by strings from heart to heart.

Now that we're here, we have plans to come back. We've got some notion of tracking down the geographical history of another ancestor, Sam Davis, who was a local hero, lunatic, and man of God. Whether we "find" him or not is beside the point. I think Mary Jane taught us that.


  1. Tears in my eyes. Love you much, sister.

  2. Hi, Laura! I found you through another blog a week or so ago and love your writing style! I envy you the chance to trace your roots - mine are in England and Italy - paying for heating oil & electricity takes precedence over travel:( I look forward to reading more!

    1. So glad you found me, Guerrina, and thank you! My sister and I have also daydreamed trips to England, Ireland and Scotland to continue tracing the family tree backward in time. But like you, we like to keep the lights on. Maybe someday!

  3. I love s. I love imagining the stories between the lines on headstones. Glad you had a chance to mend some things with the living by visiting those who are gone. And yes, I think there is no other kind of divorce.

  4. Laura,
    We’ve never met, but I feel that I already know you. I’ve known your Dad for many years and have heard a lot about you. All good, I promise! I’ve recently discovered your blog and I've enjoyed reading it. I especially liked your latest one about your yearly trek to Arkansas. I was reminded of a road trip with your dad several years ago.
    We were in N.W. Missouri trying to get to a tiny town called Rushville. A place where my grandparents put down roots, where my mother was born and where I lived for about nine years. I was hopelessly lost, but your dad, as usual wasn’t. He knew (and still does) all the back roads. Suddenly the road we were on came to a stop. In the middle of it a barricade was proclaiming, “Road Closed to All Traffic.” You could see that the road beyond the sign was no longer one. (A drivable one at any rate)
    We sat there in your dad’s truck looking at the rubble. Then your dad said, “Well, what do you think?” I replied, “I think we should believe the sign and find another way.” He didn’t miss a beat. He stepped on the gas and said, “It doesn’t apply to old Game Wardens.” With that he steered the truck around the barricade. After a bumpy ride, we arrived at our destination.
    So, what I’m trying to say is what you found out on your trek. Sometimes you find yourself on a road that no longer looks like the right road, but it leads you to where you needed to be all along. I’m so happy that after your long and rocky roads, both you and Creed found each other again. It’s where you both belong.