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.
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 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.
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.