In July of 2009 I applied for a job at a library in a small town 30 miles east of Portland that I had driven through once. I came here to interview and was delighted with the place and with the people who interviewed me. Lucky for me, the feeling was mutual. When I told my mom that I was moving to Sandy, Oregon she came back with an interesting reply, “Really? Sandy? Your uncle lived there in the 1960s. Did you know that?” No. I did not know that.
The story is that my uncle lived in the area for awhile and loved it here. Then a couple of tragedies struck the family which caused them to move down into Portland. One of those tragedies was the death of his 2 year old daughter. She drowned in a creek near the home. There was a cemetery next to his house where he buried her. I remember my uncle talking about this place a few years ago, not knowing exactly where it was. He described it as “beautiful” and mentioned that he wanted to be buried there. And also said anyone in his family could be buried there too.
When I moved here he asked me to go to this cemetery from time to time to check up on the graves of my cousins (another of his sons was buried there in 2002). I was totally happy to oblige. However, I couldn’t find it. I can’t tell you how many times I drove up and down Cherryville Road looking for this cemetery with no luck whatsoever. My uncle even drew me a map at one point and it still didn’t help. I asked people in the community about it and nobody could help me. Nobody knew it even existed! Or if they knew it existed, it existed as a kind of urban legend. This cemetery completely confounded me.
He came to visit a year ago last July and finally took me there himself. Visiting this place will be forever marked in my history as one of the most surreal of my existence. We drove into what seemed like the dirt road of somebody’s house. We ended up at a very dense grove of trees. Very dense. it was impossible to see what was on the other side of them. Uncle Will opened the trunk of his car, grabbed some garden loppers and weed killer, handed me a pair of loppers, and walked toward a small opening of this grove. He seemed to know exactly where to go and cut a hole into the opening. I reluctantly followed him into this strange place. It was absolutely incredible. Above me was as canopy of thick Douglas Firs. Around me was moss, ivy and fern, growing all over everything. The tops of turn-of-the-century headstones peeked out of the ivy. We bush-whacked our way to the back of the cemetery where we found the grave-markers of my cousins. They were the only graves in the cemetery that could be seen (aside from the taller headstones) because he’d been coming there every year to take care of them.
It was a beautiful summer day in July. The sun was starting to set and the light filtered through the trees and lighted the graves perfectly as we stood around the graves and said a Hail Mary. My uncle was very happy. He seemed to be at peace there. I could totally see why. I thought to myself, “This place is magical and beautiful.”
Now I knew where the cemetery was but how was I going to take care of it? It was overwhelmingly overgrown. There was no way I could compete with the Oregon Forest.
Lo and Behold, an effort was made to clean it up! Somebody who also has family buried there headed this up a year ago and since then amazing work as been done. In many ways it has brought our community together too. Lots of people who live here have been in on this project and have enjoyed uncovering history in their own backyard. I think about this effort and it blows my mind. This was a cemetery that was slowly being swallowed by the forest but it has been saved.
Yesterday I was driving to the library to run an errand. As I sat at the stoplight I had this urgent thought that I really needed to call my cousin to let him know that I am here to help him in any way. Then I burst into tears while I was sitting there. I felt the deepest sensation of grief deep down to the core of my heart. I had this profound feeling that he was gone. That he had departed from this earth. I waited for my mom to call me and tell me the news. Finally, I had to text her to check in. She told me that he passed at 12:30. Around the same time I was thinking about him at the stoplight.
We shared this little bond, this mystery of the cemetery. I am so glad that he was able to see that the restoration effort began there. I know that made him happy.
Here is the last photo I took of him. It was taken the day he took me to the cemetery and while we were standing at his kid’s graves. It’s not a very good photo (he looks kind of crazy) but it does show how happy and excited he was to be there.
Rest in peace Uncle Will. See you on the other side.