Remembering Those Who Have Gone Before
Counting the cemeteries he would visit this weekend as part of the Millheim American Legion post’s honor guard, Wendell Royer ran out of fingers long before finishing the list of veterans’ gravesites.
From the bluff at the end of a lonely farm lane near Woodward, where the Hennigh-Neidigh Cemetery with its 31 broken tombstones was painstakingly restored by a descendant of Revolutionary War soldiers buried there, westward through Penns Valley with stops south and north, and over to Brush Valley and its eastern extremity in Livonia …
“If there’s a flag, we’ll be there,” Royer said of the bugle-and-rifle squad that includes his son and grandson, “Private Royer,” for whom the seemingly low rank is an honor and his assigned grunt work – picking up empty shell casings and the like – a privilege.
Throughout Centre County and across America, this extended weekend is a time to pay tribute to the men and women who served in the armed forces in order to preserve the freedoms we enjoy. It is also a time to remember all our ancestors, military and civilian, whose work and dreams, whose struggles, tragedies, joys and enduring hope in the future make our lives what they are today.
Whether the accompaniment is Battery B’s booming cannon blast in Boalsburg, or the echo of a cornet sounding taps on the side of a hill visited only once a year, we do today what we should do every day: remember those who went before, whose lives preceded and paved the way for ours.
My family, like many, makes an annual pilgrimage to several cemeteries in advance of Memorial Day to place flowers on the graves of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and children. My passion for local history and genealogy makes these trips especially meaningful for me, if longer than need be for my parents, who patiently indulge, without completely understanding, perhaps, my obsession.
But they, too, remember.
“I can’t believe that building is still standing,” my mother says as we drive slowly by her childhood home. “That’s where Dad had his workshop and he’d go there every night after work.”
“And that’s where Kenny Loss lived with his wife and mother,” she continues. “His mother was an invalid, and Geri would take care of her … oh my.”
“We used to walk to that house,” my dad points out later. “Mammy Gelnett’s sister would give us molasses cookies she kept in a flour crock on the shelf going down to the cellar.
Being Pennsylvania German by descent and dialect, our “mammy” sounds more like “memmie,” and lovingly applies to grandmother, great-grandmother and beyond, back through our maternal lineage.
Grandmother and grandfather (Mammy and Pappy), great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents – we pause by their final resting places, recall the faces of those we knew, picture the yellowing images on old black-and-white snapshots of those we did not, try to imagine how ancestors even older looked and lived, and place flowers next to their tombstones for retrieval later.
Clair and Olive, Irvin and Helen – one set of grandparents to whom I was very close and another whose lives ended long before mine began ... Dirvan and Lizzie ... Mel and Sallie ... Frank and Clara ... Jacob and Amanda, the mysterious great-grandmother about whom we knew nothing until I began my historical quest ... an infant brother ... an uncle who died of cancer ... another who suffered from a debilitating disease of different sort – depression – and died by his own hand ... and on back in time ... Jacob, who was taken into captivity by Indians when the colonies were at war with the British and, three and a half decades later, built the stone house that still stands along my route back to Centre County ... and Johann Martin and Maria Dorothea, whose 1727 marriage record in the Lutheran Church at Neckarbischofsheim, Germany, reads: “They are going to Pennsylvania” ...
We remember them this weekend, as we should always. We pay tribute to them. We honor them. And we thank them.
We strive to preserve their work, to keep their memories alive.
We are who we are because they were who they were.
We are a result of their lives, of their dreams.
We stand on their shoulders.
They are us.
Have a happy – and solemnly reverent – Memorial Day, everyone.