Notes to My Readers: I spent the last weekend in my hometown of Auburn, New York. It was my 45th high school class reunion and my central New York field research had been delayed while I recuperated from the aftermath of shingles. I was especially excited to be “in the field” again and to share the experience with my son, Mike. The research coupled with seeing old friends again for the first time in fifteen years was a definite double win.
While I accomplished a great deal of field work at pioneer cemeteries this past weekend and had the pleasure of sharing this work with my son for the first time, I had some unexpected history of my own. It is worth sharing this personal moment to serve as a special reminder that history is just yesterday and we are every bit a part of the human experience that history is.
It was going to be a beautiful early October weekend. Mike and I began our five hour drive from southeastern Pennsylvania to central New York State after a drenching rain storm that had begun the day before. As we travelled north on Route 87 nearing Cortland, we drove through the tail end of the big storm. At one point we caught sight of the flooded valley below us…farms and buildings were inundated with deep muddy water. We had no idea what we might encounter in Auburn, but by the time we arrived that afternoon, it had just stopped raining. The sky was already clearing and the weekend promised to be one of crisp air and blue skies. And we were burning daylight. We checked into the Holiday Inn, stowed our gear and jumped back into the car.
Mike and I headed to the little village of Cayuga which is seven miles away and to the cemetery that holds the remains of our Tyler, Curtis and Curry ancestors. We took several moments to visit my father’s grave which is located near the Center Street entrance. It was Mike’s first visit to his grandfather’s grave. As Mike laid his hand on my father’s monument, he spoke a soft “hello” and gently moved aside the fading geraniums to read the inscription. He took out his iPhone and displayed a photo of his family and promised my father that they would visit him some day. This was the first moment of Mike’s understanding of what drives me to be a family researcher. I could tell he felt it, too.
Within the next few minutes, we began the trek down to the pioneer section. Our first stop was at Lonson and Betsey Tyler’s graves. They are my maternal great great great grandparents. It continues to astonish me that the stones are in such remarkable condition. The tombstones are still solidly affixed to their bases and stand tall and perfectly placed. The only signs of their age are the inscribed dates and the clinging mildew and lichen.
A short walk further down the steep and rutted road and a climb up several levels of soggy earth, we arrived at their daughter, Deborah’s burial site. She lies alongside her Irish born husband, Francis J. Curry. Frank, as he was called, was a Civil War Veteran, serving with the 111th New York State Volunteers, Company C and his grave is marked with a simple monument that was provided under the act of Congress of 3 February 1879 (20 Stat. 281) that extended the privilege of government-provided gravestones to soldiers buried in private cemeteries. Deborah has no marker and it is unclear that there ever was one.
Two or three rows back from the Currys stands the tall, polished pink marble obelisk of my maternal great great grandparents, Henry Eugene and Susannah M. Downing Curtis. Their son, George married the Curry’s daughter, Kate.
Mike was hooked with the human history that surrounded us and began to walk row upon row reading the names and dates and wondering aloud about the lives of the individuals each stone signified. We went on through the entire cemetery… up the steep slopes together until the light began to wane and the air became uncomfortably chilly. I could see the “field fever” in Mike’s eyes as we left the small village behind and headed to the warm hotel and a cocktail and a good meal.
We had a full day ahead and we were ready to go early…anticipating a day in the field…and Mike was excited to see my 76 year old brother…his uncle Gale. Gale was excited, too. That morning the car was full of conversation – mostly the monologues of my brother ranging from Cornell…Einstein…Keith Olberman…Bill O’Reilly…Karl, a heavy metal guitarist acquaintance of Gale’s… all intermixed with tales of my father.
I picked up a dozen rose buds to lay at each ancestral grave that we planned to visit that day…three more than I needed. All through the morning, we stopped and paid our respects…back to Lakeview to my father and the Tylers, the Currys and the Curtises with a rose for each grave and then on to Enfield in Tompkins County and to the two small pioneer cemeteries that held my Van Dorn, Williams and Purdy ancestors. I had walked both these cemeteries last year with my brother and have written an earlier post about our experience…cows, violets, lost keys and found family.
This was Mike’s first field trip to Enfield and unlike Lakeview Cemetery, Christian Cemetery was in open country and had unkempt areas with fallen and broken stones…many stacked on the perimeter of the cemetery and overgrown with tall grasses. I know the perils of tromping through heavily tangled growth and unstable earth in old cemeteries and I also know the thrill of pushing through those obstacles and uncovering old monuments. Mike’s intrigue about the monuments that peeked above the grasses had him pushing through and reading the old pioneer stones. Oh yeah. Field Fever. After laying a rose on each ancestral grandparent’s grave, I prodded Mike away and cajoled him on to the next cemetery, but I knew how he felt.
The Presbyterian Cemetery was just about a mile away and on the same road and presents an entirely different environment. It is heavily treed and lushly carpeted with wild flowers. It is trim and neat and the protected stones and obelisks are mostly level and intact….until you reach the very back of the cemetery…just four feet from the gravesites of my great grandparents, Elbert Purdy and Elizabeth Williams Purdy. I took a moment and placed two of the last five roses with Elbert and Elizabeth and pointed out the terrain at the back of the cemetery…just steps away. Elbert’s parents and grandmother -Samuel D. Purdy and his wife, Semantha Ingersoll and her mother, Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll – were recorded as buried in this cemetery. I had visited the cemetery in May and August of last year and alone ventured into the fallen area in an attempt to find their monuments, but to no avail. The tantalizing view of the top six inches of some tall tombstones and an obelisk left me frustrated, but I knew it would be dangerous and foolhardy to attempt to penetrate the area alone. Several yards of the eastern section of the cemetery had dropped at least 10 to 12 feet from below the level of the rest of the cemetery. It had been undermined by erosion and the occasional flooding that devastates the Ithaca area and was tangled with growth that was several feet over my head. But I was not alone this time and Mike was keen on finding Samuel, Semantha and Elizabeth.
Before I could utter the words “Be careful!”, Mike had charged down the steep and slippery incline and began to push and stomp his way through the bramble. As his mother, I couldn’t help but constantly call out to watch out for the possiblity of unstable earth…snakes…and poison ivy. “I’m fine, Mom. I’ve got it. Don’t worry,” he assured me as I watched him create a discernable path to the obelisk. His assuring words became a shout. “PURDY…MOM…PURDY!” I turned to my brother and told him to stay put and tore down the slope…my heart pounding and shouting, “Samuel! Semantha! Elizabeth!” Without one worry about falling into the brush, I plunged ahead to find Mike standing in front of a seven foot tall stone obelisk. Once again, he said, “Purdy” while pointing to the base. Mike had crushed the grasses away to reveal the base and the six inch tall letters.
As my gaze travelled up the obelisk, I was transfixed by the words S. D. Purdy and his wife Semantha. My brother, Gale, despite his age and some health issues was damned well not going to stand by and not be part of the action. He made the difficult journey down and joined us while we stood reverently before the obelisk of Samuel and Semantha. Mike broke ranks and continued his method of probe and stomp and within four to five feet of the obelisk, there was Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll’s tall tombstone. It was in perfect condition, but had a troubling woody growth wedged against it and threatening to undermine it. Elizabeth Weyburn Ingersoll. Wife of Samuel. Daughter of Ulysses pioneers, Samuel Weyburn and Jane Bratton. And I had three remaining roses…one for each grandparent.
GPS positioning and photo archiving accomplished, we left the cemetery with an incredible high spirit and a shared experience that few people have. After a quick late lunch and a farewell visit at Gale’s home, we headed to the hotel to rid ourselves of the dirt and clinging bits of brush and bramble and ready ourselves for my class reunion.
Clean and groomed and still elated over the discovery of the Purdy obelisk and the lovely Ingersoll tombstone, we drove the short distance to my class reunion that was held at my friend, Jim Hutchison’s beautiful old Victorian home on South Street. We ran about twenty minutes late and entered the gathering of West High graduates that was in full swing. It wasn’t long before dozens of hugs and kisses later, we were part of the laughter and happy conversation. At one point, my friend, Marie Raymond Phillips, pulled me aside explaining she had “something” for me. Marie is one of my classmates and friends that year after year works with other fellow West High graduates to organize our 1965 class reunions. This was the first one I had attended since 1995. I figured it was an old picture of us that we would laugh about-bemoan the current state of our waistlines and then go on to the business of old friends catching up with each other. She opened her hand and I saw the glint of metal and I immediately recognized it as an “ID bracelet”. Friends and sweethearts often gave a personalized bracelet as a token of their relationship. My first thought was she was sharing a treasure of hers and I thought it a very lovely gesture as we hadn’t seen each other all these years. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I wasn’t sure whether to give this to you” and I was even more confused as I stared at the item she held in her open hand. I looked up to meet her eyes and saw some of my closest “guy” classmates standing close behind her and looking at me with a tender expression I couldn’t understand.
Marie took a deep breath and explained to me that some time ago, one of our male classmates had given this to her with the instruction that it was to be given to me. And she couldn’t remember who it was. And no one at the reunion was that male classmate. I looked down at the bracelet again. What was this about? What classmate? How do I understand the expressions on everyone’s faces? That moment seemed to hang in the air as the world stood still. I then became aware Marie was speaking to me again and I snapped back to attention when she said “Chappy”. Chappy was Charles Reed, my high school sweetheart.
All through high school, I was “Chappy’s girl” and remained so to all of my high school chums. I had just told Mike that story on our trip up. Though Chappy and I had both gone on to very different lives and to have families of our own, he and I were frozen in West High School history…together. In 1990 we saw each other again at our reunion and had caught up on our lives…visited his brother, Bob and his wife, Mabel…sat on their front porch with a cold beer…and reminisced with our close high school pals. We walked along the lakeside arm and arm with our closest friends and felt a special love that was just ours. It was sweet and kind and eternal. We all laughed… a lot. Remembered…a lot. And we went back to our lives.
In 1995 we were once again all reunited and celebrating our high school reunion, but with the terrible news that Chappy was very ill with cancer. But he was fighting it and the reunion was important for him to attend. So we once again laughed and reminisced though we felt the presence of his illness. And then he was gone. From our lives and this world. Buried in Arlington Cemetery.
And so standing in front of my friends so many years later, I realized what she cradled in her outstretched palm. The inscription read “CHAPPY”. It was the ID bracelet that I had given to him for his sixteenth birthday…47 years ago. I took the bracelet and held it gently. And cried. When I looked up, there wasn’t a dry eye among the people around me…the sixty-something faces of the men and women that are the friends of my youth… the friends of my old age.
When Marie finished our embrace, she told me that as he was dying, Chappy had given instructions to one of our friends that he wanted make sure that I be given the bracelet. I turned it over and read “LOVE DEBBIE”. I don’t think anyone was breathing at that point. I know I wasn’t. Marie said what was in my heart. He had kept it all these years and he thought of me at the very end. AND I understood his message. LOVE DEBBIE.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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