When we pulled up to the rusty iron gates of the cemetery I told my wife it felt like I had been there before. If that were so, it had probably been 45 years and the journey back had been a strange one.
I guess I’ve known for a good part of my life that my maternal great-grandmother had died young, the result of a hard life on a homestead north of Fort Sumner. What I don’t remember ever hearing was where she was buried.
She died after complications from a miscarriage in the spring of 1919. It happened while my great-grandfather was away, either barbering in Portales or one of his frequent travels wanderlust across the Southwest. The story was that my grandmother, who was 9 at the time, rode a horse to a neighboring ranch in an April snowstorm to get help for her mother when Nellie B. Ellen Maxwell became gravely ill. Help came too late or too ill-prepared, as was often the case on a homestead.
For whatever reason, nearly a century later, it seems no one in the family knew where Nellie’s grave was. Women from three generations, my mom, my cousin and my niece, took the name Ellen. But their namesake’s gravesite was a mystery.
Mom thought it was probably out on the ranch where the homestead had been but she wasn’t sure where or even how to get to the place. She had been out there when she was young but couldn’t remember much. I had a vague recollection of driving out there once with my granddad and my dad but if we actually did I was probably younger than my grandmother was when she rode for help.
A few years ago mom talked to a family friend who still has land in that area and he told her he knew of a few graves in the area that could be hers but he didn’t know where she was resting. He invited us out to look but we never seemed to find the time.
Finally a few weeks ago on a whim I searched her name with Fort Sumner, N.M. on the Internet and it returned a page that had a cemetery listing with about 80 names in it for Locust Grove Cemetery. Her name was on the list. One more search brought up a map pinpointing the old graveyard — right on a gravel county road.
On the way back from another trip I told my wife we would detour out to the cemetery since we were going to be in the area.
Unmarked, simple and with scarcely a tree in sight, the fenced but fairly expansive country cemetery was easy to find and it really did give me a strange feeling pulling up there. I knew in my mind that locating my ancestor in an unattended plot would take awhile if I found her at all. Something inside was telling me different.
Once through the gates I wasn’t sure where to start, so I just picked a row and started down it. Four graves in, there was a concrete block marker with the name Nellie Maxwell scratched into its surface.
In the dried grass atop the grave were the remnants of red artificial flowers. Like Nelly B., subject to the harsh prairie climate, they had only been beautiful for a very short while.
Finding the plain grave and simple marker in the nearly forgotten cemetery made me sad. It was so quiet and so lonely out there in sight of the mesas. I was glad I’d found the place. It made Nellie’s story even more special.