My aunt Marti made a poster board of photographs of my great uncle Harlan, which were on display at the American Legion building after his funeral. The last time I saw my uncle was almost exactly three years ago. I've always wished I could visit my relatives more often.


My family's roots within the borders of a small town in Illinois died with my great uncle Harlan on February 1st. Weeks later, I was back on my family’s historic stomping grounds – Mill Shoals, Illinois. It had been three years since my last visit when my grandpa and great grandma died a week apart. Now, my relatives must adapt to preserve our history and maintain a place in the village we’ve called home for over a century. It's the one place we know we can always go to feel loved, regardless of generation, and nobody is ready to let go. In the words of American poet Joy Harjo: "It is unspeakable. It is everlasting. It is for keeps."


A line of cars drive in procession toward Little Zion Cemetery for my great uncle Harlan’s funeral. The weather was uncharacteristically comfortable for February, almost like I remember it was three years ago, the last time I was at the cemetery for my great grandmother's funeral.


My father Mark, my great uncle Ivan, his sons Alex and Wyatt, my great uncle Larry and his daughter Bekki carry the vault lid to be placed over my great uncle Harlan’s casket at his funeral.


In the Little Zion Cemetery outside of Enfield, some of the most present names are Dozier, Doshier and Garrett. From what I have heard, the Doshiers changed the spelling of their–and my– last name after an argument, and the Garretts are my relatives through my great grandmother.


My great uncle Larry and his wife, my great aunt Marti, read cards and letters left for the family during uncle Harlan’s funeral.


My family and friends celebrate my great uncle Harlan’s life at the local American Legion after his funeral. Uncle Harlan did not leave many instructions for after his death– just that he wanted us to have a party.


My cousins Mireya, Garret and Bruce stand across a pool table at the local American Legion while my cousin Eli passes them pool balls. The last time I saw most of them was in 2020, after our grandfather and great grandmother died a week apart.


My great aunt Audrey takes a moment to look at the poster filled with photos of Harlan– her brother– after his funeral. She told me about a photo from a formal he took her to when she didn’t have a date. She said all her friends were jealous that she had such an attractive date. When they learned he was her brother, they all wanted her to set them up with him.


My great uncle Ivan teaches my cousin Mireya how to shoot on our family’s property in Mill Shoals. Even though I don't do it often, target shooting is one of my favorite pastimes with my relatives in Illinois. It was fun to see my younger cousins become old enough to participate.


My dad, Mark, puts beer cans on the ends of sticks poking out of a fire so that we can use them as shooting targets. We took breaks from shooting to warm up next to the fire on the chilly February afternoon.


My cousin Eleni and her brother, Eli, walk down the driveway of our great grandparents’ home in Mill Shoals. I often wonder what their impression of this place is. They are growing up in a time of change. I know it will be different than the one I grew up with.


A group of my relatives catch up on the front porch of my great grandparents’ home in Mill Shoals. My great grandparents have been gone for years, but the home has always felt like one of the few places in the world I have always known I was loved. Soon, this house will no longer exist.


For Keeps

Sun makes the day new.

Tiny green plants emerge from earth.

Birds are singing the sky into place.

There is nowhere else I want to be but here.

I lean into the rhythm of your heart to see where it will take us.

We gallop into a warm, southern wind.

I link my legs to yours and we ride together,

Toward the ancient encampment of our relatives.

Where have you been? they ask.

And what has taken you so long?

That night after eating, singing, and dancing

We lay together under the stars.

We know ourselves to be part of mystery.

It is unspeakable.

It is everlasting.

It is for keeps.

Joy Harjo – March 4, 2013, Champaign, Illinois.

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