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Kentucky by Heart: Return to family gravesite with relatives offers moment of solace during pandemic

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

It had been more than seven months since my wife and I took an extended car trip. We’ve been cautious about the virus since the pandemic, we had followed precautionary rules to avoid infection, and we stayed close to our home in Versailles. During that time, we had some contact with her daughters, though quite limited. Other than phone calls, there had been no contact with my family, most of whom live in Northern Kentucky. Recently, I entertained thoughts of changing that deficit of kin interaction but wanted to do it in a safe and sensible way.

So last week, Suzanne, sensing my longing, made an offer to take a day off from her state government job to travel 70 miles with me to Butler, in Pendleton County. My brother, my parents, and other family members are buried in the Butler Cemetery on Flour Creek Road. Being Covid careful, our itinerary would be quite simple. We’d stop at Walmart in Cynthiana to buy some flowers for my parents’ gravesite, then stop at a restaurant for takeout lunch and eat in the car. The destination spot was the cemetery, and we’d meet and visit for a few minutes with my sister-in-law there, spend some time in contemplation, and do some gravestone upkeep… all while observing social distancing.

Steve at the gravesites of his family at Butler Cemetery in Pendleton County (Photo provided)

The time would be fleeting, I knew. Hopefully, it would also be meaningful. Keeping in touch with one’s roots, as most of us realize, is important. Surely a 140-mile round trip with that in mind would be worth the effort.

We set out on our day trip on a cloudy day, October 28. Driving northward on Russell Cave Pike toward Cynthiana, the scenery brought back childhood memories of my family’s occasional trips to Lexington. Horse farms, Centerville (with the four-way stop intersection), stone walls, and curvy roads reminded me of my pre-teen years sitting in the backseat with my brother and only sibling, a year and a half younger, in our Ford Fairlane station wagon. Dad usually narrated the ride, combining a little of the area’s history with his own personal history. Our stop in Cynthiana recalled the times spent in Harrison County’s tobacco warehouse where we sold our annual crop — income that would eventually help secure a college education for my brother Mike and me. Suzanne, raised in her early years in Bourbon County, shared recollections, as well.

The lunch stop in Falmouth, where we ordered hoagies and paninis from Two Rivers Stoned Baked Pizza and ate them in the car, gave me pause to think about the 1960s catastrophes in the town; there was flooding of the Licking River and a catastrophic tornado. I recall our family driving through the town area in the aftermath, and scenes from such are indelibly clear in my head. My parents had personal connections to some of those Pendleton County folk, and so frankly we were much more than nosy gawkers.

Leaving Falmouth, we arrived about fifteen minutes later at the cemetery after turning right off Highway 27 onto Flour Creek Road, a couple of miles east from “downtown” Butler. The Butler Cemetery is maybe a half-mile from the historic Fryer House, where my mother was raised. The cemetery is a place I’ve visited probably well over a hundred times in the past, often on Decoration Day but plenty of times otherwise, too. It’s where people rest for eternity who made a difference in my life, and I won’t forget them.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

We drove to the site where Mike’s, Mom and Dad’s, and Aunt May’s (Mom’s twin sister) gravesites sit on the crest of the graveyard. We got out of the car to get our bearings and think about how we might proceed. Life images of my heritage appeared in que in my mind and slowly began moving forward; each image was touching, if only because of my own familiarity to them.

Looking around, we saw that my parents’ gravestone showed weathered artificial flowers standing in urns on each side. Suzanne patiently replaced both arrangements with our purchases: fallish flowers, red berries, and strings of golden amaranthus draping over the sides. I appreciated her efforts and her crafty way of making them look exactly right. I imagined Mom watching from above, nodding in approval.

We were soon joined by my sister-in-law Theresa, wife of my brother, Mike. He died of pancreatic cancer two years ago, and each of us ache over the loss.

We left our masks off because we were outside and careful to keep our social distance. It was the first time Suzanne and I crossed paths with Theresa in person since early in the year, at least. After some chit-chat about my nephews and other family members, Theresa handed me a spray cleaner and a couple of cloths, and I gladly took them into my hands and began the process of wiping down the stones. Mom and Dad’s marble stone had the extra challenge of some hardened green algae making itself at home on its top, but a little elbow grease soon made it disappear. I followed in a similar fashion on Mike’s and Aunt May’s, which proved easier wipe downs because they had more recently been set.

I grew up with the simple notion that physical work is inherently good, and those few moments of cleaning were like an uplifting worship service. When you care about your beloved, it only seems right and good to care for them and their things. It’s fulfilling, yet also a bit sad.

The entire meeting at this hallowed place took only about 30 minutes but brought a certain sense of solace to me, a “homey” sense of being, I guess. The trip back to Versailles gave me time to absorb the experience, and since then, I am working to internalize it. I don’t want that feeling to go away.

I’m predicting it will be a while before all of us do family life in a normal fashion again, but for now, we do what we can, and hope that our meaningful moments will sustain us.

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