Fields crossed by lines of bright bouquets of flowers and American flags marked out the cemeteries that I have been passing this week on my way to my mother’s bedside here in Kansas City, Missouri.
Traditionally over the last weekend, families in this neighboring country visit their dead. For the next week or so before the fresh cut blossoms fade the visual memory of latest Memorial Day celebrated on Monday will colorfully persist.
Back in the 1950s, my mother would pack a picnic lunch then my father would load our growing family into our wood sided Chevrolet station wagon for a drive to Leavenworth, Kansas. There in a quiet, well-treed spot amidst newly planted corn fields we would search out a tall four sided, gray stone topped by a spire. It marked the plot where three generations of the Dougherty family rested.
The first face on the family monument belonged to Charles Dougherty. Born among the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania in 1839, Charles anticipated Horace Greeley’s advice and headed west. By the early 1860s family lore tells of him working as a trader among the Potawatomi who had been forcibly removed some two decades earlier from their lands in Indiana and settled in northeastern Kansas. By the 1870s Charles was working for the Army Quartermaster at Fort Leavenworth.
Ellen Gallagher Dougherty, better known as Nellie, has the opposite side of the stone. She had moved west as a child in the 1850s with her family from a tranquil Kentucky to “Bloody” Kansas wracked by a bitter guerrilla war which preceded the Civil War.
Her father John Gallagher ran a local livery stable. He gave a needed job to a young Bill Cody in the 1850s after his father’s death had left the Cody family in dire straits. This was prior Cody’s Pony Express days and the beginnings of his rise to fame. Nellie’s long, close acquaintance with Cody led her to be welcomed aboard Cody’s surrey to ride with him in the parade whenever Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to Leavenworth.
Though remembered as having “a sour, prissy disposition,” Charles saw Nellie as his life partner. They married in Leavenworth on June 6, 1871. Two years later Nellie birth to my grandfather John.
He now also rests there along with my grandmother Dede and their son John Jr., my father.
My mother had her marker placed next to my father’s nearly 20 years ago. Wisely she resisted the offer of the stone mason to chisel the 19 into the stone in anticipation of the final two numbers needed to mark her demise. She felt for sure that 20 would be the appropriate starting number.
A few letters and numbers carved into stone certainly do not capture the lives lived by those being remembered. The memory of their sacrifices and achievements, hopes and struggles live in the generations nurtured and provided for by them.
How will we be remembered? What will our memorial be; a vibrant, healthy, sustainable world or a polluted, despoiled planet?
In his unfinished work Dialectics of Nature Frederick Engels admonished his generation of the late 1800s, “Let us not flatter ourselves on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.”
World Environment Day tomorrow challenges us to work towards create living memorials of our time here that will truly be of benefit to future generations.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.