Brill family graves at Shiloh Cemetery

Among the Bones – an introduction

I collect bones… Skulls and fingers and teeth from smiling jaws, I dig up, brush off, and polish smooth. Many now I have, piled high around me. I know their faces, their voices, can see their walk and hear their laughter. Among the bones I find truth in and of my past. I can search through what these bones really are: names and faces, and words written on faded paper in old-fashioned writing. I have come to know those who have come before, as if I am indeed holding them in my hand, solid and smooth.

Once I visited a graveyard in the most perfect spot I could imagine. It sat in the yard of a very old clapboard church, along a dirt road that had been laid before the American Revolution. It was quiet beneath a bright blue Spring sky.

It was during a trip to Virginia, along the border between states. A few nights earlier my older brother and I had shared the same dream, three hundred miles north, as the moon was rising higher into the night. My brother and I have this connection, and since that dream, always call the other after having any more like it, in which someone close to us has passed away.

We took a train with my father south to Winchester, Virginia, to attend my grandfather’s funeral. I was a kid, and didn’t much like the looks of my Grandfather Lee in his casket. His face had fallen from a recent stroke, and I remember thinking he had been stronger. The sight was startling, and my brother and I silently swapped looks, sitting on a bench several feet away.

Lee wasn’t buried in that graveyard in the perfect spot. He was buried in a city cemetery, a very, very old one. It has huge stone pillars that hold a big iron gate, and is even well known for some of its residents. Some of the bones I’ve dug up were buried there, away from their folks across the state line, back in the perfect spot.

The perfect spot was up on a hill… Tall grass scratched my legs and the wetness of dew got between my toes, as I looked out at faded names on old stone markers. Then I did not know all of these names, and only a vague feeling crept up that they belonged to me. Like strangers I had once known, but had since departed from, they curled their fingers and spoke to me, to come, to seek.

A spell cast by the dead, my dead, and I follow backwards. I am a mirror, and like a mirror’s mirror, I keep going in further, deeper, the image smaller but still as strong.

I have seen ancestors in dreams, learned their names, discovered their traditions. My heart at times has felt nostalgic for places I’ve never been. I have been enriched by stories of land and music, love and oppression. From my ancestors I have a history that begins hundreds of years before my conception, a heritage.

Throughout the year and throughout my ages, I have held my ancestors in reverence. I do not have an easy explanation for this, except perhaps, that I have simply been listening.

I have often been surprised by the seemingly random occurrences that have made me feel connected to my ancestors. I can list the times when something significant happened to me on an ancestor’s birthdate, a connection between me and them that has become manifest in a gold ring, a hummingbird in hand, or a packet of genealogy in the mail. It would be a list that would at least intrigue a skeptic.

My ancestors had a strong, significant place in my childhood. They stood as testament to me that death is not an end, in a time when many in my family were dying. Their continued presence in my history awes and comforts, pushes and inspires.

This blog is a sharing of my research into my family history, as well as a tribute to all of them. Thanks so much for reading; I hope you enjoy your visit. Please feel free to get in touch with comments or questions, and most definitely reach out if you think we are connected.

~ Nellie

Another version of this was first published in 1998 in a women’s magazine, and as I did then I will state clearly now: the idea of collecting bones is of course only metaphorical!

Photo: by the author; Brill family graves, Shiloh Cemetery, Lehew, WV; (photo taken on vacation in 2013 – not from that first visit)

Nellie Levine is a writer, artist, family history enthusiast, and the creator of the Among the Bones genealogy blog. She has been publishing essays, articles, stories, reviews, and other reflections for over twenty-five years, and delving into her own genealogy for many more.

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