Wanderer in the Cemetery

Under skeletons of winter trees, they lie here beneath the frozen ground. Six generations of ancestors in the same small cemetery, nestled in the far corner of Dallas County, Iowa.

Why is it that each family has a caretaker of old pictures, family lore–one person who wanders in cemeteries, even in winter, wondering about those who share bits of DNA?

I wonder why they risked everything to settle at the small dot on the map known as Dexter, Iowa. Yet even among these barren stones, I carry glimpses of personalities alive with family and community.

Here in the old section, near an ancient locust tree, lies our pioneer and paradigm, Miles Marshall–who arrived in 1855–a farmer from Indiana, Justice of the Peace, state legislator. A Quaker and an abolitionist, two of his sons served in the Civil War, one losing his life. According to another son (the only one who stayed in Indiana), “While the horses made the turn at the end of the furrow,” Miles would “take an a bridged grammar from his pocket to study.” His name now obliterated by lichens, Miles’s stone is the oldest one here.

The tombstone of Rhoda and John Neal is along the south side of the old graveyard. Rhoda, Miles Marshall’s granddaughter, was disowned–according to family lore–because she married a “poor fiddler.” Her own letters defended him as a fine horseman. Rhoda taught school while John, a descendant of slave-owners, served in the cavalry in the Civil War–first on the Confederate side, then the Union–before they brought their belongings to Iowa from Indiana.

On the back of their stone–a sizable one, I note, for a poor fiddler–is carved the names of Thomas and Nancy Neal, John’s elderly parents who made the arduous trip from Tennessee.

After having five daughters, to John and Rhoda was born in Iowa, Orlando Swain Neal. He married Nellie, a Kansas girl, and brought her back to Dexter, where he farmed, bottled and delivered milk, served on the town council, and was on the committee when the 1916 Dexter Community Building was built. Their flat gray marker is down the hill, west from his parents and grandparents.

Though O.S. and Nellie are my dad’s grandparents, I know them mainly from my mother’s stories. Neals lived next door to Wilsons and showed them many kindnesses during the Depression. Mom remembered the pot of lima beans Mrs. Neal made for them–with real chunks of ham–when all nine Wilson children suffered from whooping cough and the tiny twins died from it.

To Swain and Nellie was born Kenneth Neal. It’s a short walk northwest to the nearly black stone of Kenneth and Ruby. My birth made them grandparents. All my classmates knew Kenneth and also called him “Grandpa.” He was a farmer, sang in Dexter’s Meth-Quaka-Terians quartet, and enjoyed counting all his grandchildren in the church choir. Ruby, my first ancestor to complete high school (and play basketball there), left a legacy of afghans and quilts–Double Wedding Ring, Dahlia Star, Grandmother’s Flower Garden–to her children and grandchildren.

Over in the northwest corner of the cemetery are the respectable tombstones of the Blohms and Ohrts, Ruby Neal’s parents and grandparents. Farmers, they came to America in the 1870s so their sons would not have to fight for the Kaiser.

George Blohm became a butcher and grocer. He married Anna, daughter of Martha and Dethlef Ohrt, farmer and raiser of spotted ponies. From where all four lie you can see the town of Dexter in the distance.

Kenneth and Ruby Neal’s firstborn was Warren, my dad–a farmer, carpenter, World War II veteran, and patient teacher of gear shifting to teenage daughters. His and my mother Doris’s dark gray stone is in the new section east of the road, under a sunburst locust along the highest ridge–the same ridge where decades ago we teenagers in the church youth group stood in snow and played “Up From the Grave He Arose” on our horns one Easter sunrise.

Over the 160-some years these ancestors lived around Dexter, did they share my fondness for a blanket of fresh snow? The earthy smell of spring furrows, the drama of a Midwest thunderstorm? The Milky Way stretching across sultry Iowa summers, the rustle of autumn cornstalks?

Did this place fulfill their dreams of a better life?

They are why I grew up here–and largely what lured me back to Iowa after my new son began to weave his own strand into the family timeline.

Meanwhile, why in these later years do I need to know and remember these forebears who people my genealogy? Is remembering the same as honoring them?

Why am I the one to be the caretaker, the keeper of the stories, and wanderer in cemeteries.

Someday, I’ll join them, the seventh generation in one small cemetery, awaiting the final trump, tucked way in the far corner of Dallas County, Iowa.


Published in The Des Moines Sunday Register, February 9, 1997.





  1. I love this about you…a cemetery wanderer (and photographer) I have often been…adding more wandering to my bucket list.

  2. “What am I the one?” Good question. I wish I had a young person in our family to mentor with all this stuff in my head and in my records. There are so many stories to tell.

  3. You do have a way with words! 🙂 So glad you are a keeper of these stories! This one was particularly good…the haunting notes of the past coming back in living color. Tombstones do not speak, and yet, the stories you tell portray a clear picture of these people. Love is a forever thing…nothing haunting there! I know these souls are pleased you share their life stories. Their hardships, their sacrifices, their kindnesses matter. It is an example of lives well-lived; it is an example for us all to strive to be our best.

  4. What a blessing that you can wander through so much family history in such a small area. You do such a wonderful job of bringing them to life in so few phrases.

    Why do we take on the role of keeper of the memories? Because we can, and are the ones who sense the importance, even if that might not be realized in present time.

  5. I love reading what you write….I find that we think alike. However, my sister is the wanderer of the cemetaries and the keeper of the memories. She is teaching my grandson. We go to the cemetary on Memorial Day and she teaches him about the family, always reminding him that there will be a test. He is 29 now and remembering more every time she ‘tests’ him.

  6. enjoyed my walk through the cemetery with you…. My parents, grandparents on both sides, and uncle and aunt are all near the SE corner….

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