Saturday Single No. 346

Relatively early yesterday morning, the Texas Gal and I picked up my mom and headed off to Cambridge, my dad’s hometown, fifty miles east of St. Cloud. That’s where we met my sister and became involved in an annual task that I’d quite honestly never thought about: We tended to the graves in the family plot at the Cambridge Lutheran Church.

As I mentioned the other week, my dad passed on ten years ago this month. Every June since then, my sister has taken my mom to Cambridge to visit dad’s grave and to clean his marker and the other five markers in the family plot. This year, with Mom limited by the effects of both aging and the stroke she had earlier this year, the Texas Gal and I joined in.

All six of the graves in the plot have flat markers, and over the course of a year, grass begins to encroach, growing over the markers and obscuring them. So, wielding knives, my sister, the Texas Gal and I trimmed back the grass around each marker and then, with knives still in hand,  chiseled compacted grass and dirt out of the engraved letters on a few of the stones.

Dad’s marker was easy. Because he was World War II veteran, his marker is metal and has raised letters. Gravity and time have not yet done much work, and his marker is still fully above ground, all of which made the trimming and cleaning easier. Things were not so easy for the stones marking the graves of his parents, my Grandpa Albert and Grandma Jennie (neither of whom I ever knew).

Those two are the oldest markers in the family plot, Grandpa having passed on in 1942 and Grandma in 1948, and they were the most challenging to clean. Grandma’s marker, especially, has begun to sink into the ground and is almost an inch below ground level. I spent more time trimming the grass around Grandma’s stone and cleaning out its engraved letters than anyone else spent on any other stone yesterday.  (The other graves there are those of my uncle – Dad’s brother – and his wife and their son, my cousin Charlie, who died very young in the late 1950s.) While the Texas Gal, my sister and I cleaned, my mom gave some needed attention to a flower arrangement in the family plot.

It sounds like a sad occasion, I imagine. It wasn’t. We chatted as we worked, telling family stories and remembering. We noted that the Swedish heritage of the Cambridge Lutheran Church is obvious in its cemetery, with the markers bearing names like Erickson, Svendborg, Sundstrom, Nelson, Bergquist and many more whose forbears came from Sweden. (“Oh, yeah,” said my sister. “Serve up some lutefisk, and even now, they’d come running!”) On a brief walk after we finished our work, we noticed a couple stones with birth dates in the mid-1800s, marking the graves of folks who might have been born in what they no doubt called the Old Country.

“Mom knows a lot of folks here,” my sister said. “It’s kind of like a reunion.” But my sister also noted that if we really want to hear tales, we need to walk with Mom through St. Mathew’s Cemetery – at the site of what was called the Waterbury Church – in the countryside between the small towns of Lamberton and Wabasso in southwestern Minnesota. And that’s true. Mom lived in Cambridge for only a few years in the mid-1940s, but she grew up in southwestern Minnesota, and given her memory, her tales would be numerous.

(My mom and my sister visited the Waterbury cemetery a couple of years ago, and yesterday my sister said the tale that sticks with her was that of a young fellow at a family celebration who noticed a whiskey bottle in the back seat of a parked car. He opened the door and the bottle and took a long – and final – swig of what turned out to be battery acid. “That was one of the Langs,” Mom said. “It happened at a farewell party.”)

We looked briefly for the graves of Dad’s Uncle Malthe and Aunt Bernie but didn’t see them, and then we got in our two cars and headed into downtown Cambridge for lunch before heading home. (A tip for those who might someday find themselves in Cambridge, Minnesota: Eat at the People’s Cafe. If they’re offering kielbasa with eggs and hash browns, order it. Or if stuffed green pepper soup is on the menu, order that.)

I didn’t think of it while we were working on the grave markers, nor did it cross my mind as we had lunch or as we drove home. But last night, I thought of a song written by bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and recorded in 1927. You might know the song. It’s been recorded numerous times since, sometimes with the title of “One Kind Favor,” by musicians as diverse as Peter, Paul & Mary, the Carter Family, B.B. King, the Slovenian band Laibach, Bob Dylan, Kelly Joe Phelps and Dave Van Ronk.

I originally offered here the version John Hammond, Jr., included on his self-titled 1964 album, but I’ve since had to substitute B.B. King’s version of “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” from his 2008 album One Kind Favor, as today’s Saturday Single.

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