My mom and dad grew up in western Ohio, and our family often went out to visit. Dad's family, a more typical American family, was, while not newly immigrant, a family which had immigrated to the United States within living memory. His parents had grown up in Detroit and settled in Lima, Ohio, due to my grandfather's job. My mother's side, on the other hand, had been in the country for well over 200 years. We fought in the French and Indian War, and which side we were on was debatable!
The area where my mom's side lived is known for farming and for Mennonites. While my mom was never a devout Mennonite, she and her sisters were raised in the Mennonite church, and they had many Mennonite friends and relations. I loved visiting everyone and hadn't paid much attention to which friends were Mennonite and which were not until my grandmother asked me if I wanted to visit friends with her when I was about eleven-years-old.
There was nothing to do at my grandmother's house that day, and my grandmother has a way of adding spice to life no matter where we went, so, of course, I wanted to go. We packed ourselves up in the car, and I looked out the window for familiar homes to come closer. But they never did. Instead, we pulled into an edge of a field and went up a very slight grade. My grandmother had pulled into a graveyard. Stunned, I got out of the car and stood gawking at my surroundings. Grabbing me by the wrist, Gram pulled lightly and said, "Come on, now, we don't have all day. I'm going to show you the cousins."
I thought the day had gotten as strange as it was going to get as Grandma led me through the maze of trails in that old graveyard, alternately talking to the dead and me. After she said a few words to one cousin, we moved on when she hissed out the side of her mouth, "I never did like that one, but you know you can't speak ill to the dead." I almost told her it was speak ill of the dead, but I was too surprised and gagged on the words.
After we'd visited a dozen or so graves at that cemetery, off we pulled to another. When we climbed back into the car, Grandma said, "We just have a few more graves to visit." I was beginning to wonder just how many cemeteries a small town like Lima could have when we drove well away from the city and completely into the boondocks. We passed intersection after intersection as the houses fell away, and then the barns fell away, and finally only rows of corn, wheat, and beans were left. In the middle of a nondescript field, Grandma made a left down a little dirt road that looked more like an accident that a tractor made than any proper trail. We drove about two hundred yards before we stopped next to a tree with about five or six headstones in a plot to the right of it.
"These are the other relatives," Gram said. I don't know if it came out that they were Mennonites then or if it was after I'd seen a few other Mennonite cemeteries, including the one in front of my mom's childhood friend's house. At that cemetery, my mom's friend's mother had turned the sheep loose, and two sheep were munching happily between Noah and Grace while others grazed in front of other unreadable headstones and still others mehhed piteously as if they just couldn't find the grass they wanted.
I fell in love with Mennonite cemeteries that day as I stood at the edge of one. Nothing separated death from life. The bones of family slept right where they lived, and life simply continued around them, embracing and affirming what they had been and done instead of cordoning it off in some foreign space set apart from the living.
I was still thinking the buds of these thoughts--they would take years to formulate fully--when Gram finished talking to the cousins.
"You coming?" she called over her shoulder.
"Yeah," I said, as I headed back to the car and shut the door, not sure if we were going home or continuing or visiting--living friends or non.