You know, I was already feeling bad enough that I hadn’t been back to visit my father’s grave, but then…well…this. My father’s life, it seems, was never straightforward and was always twisted around, backwards, and confusing. Dad hasn’t changed one iota, not even now in death.
His grave is backwards. Seriously.
You know, I swear…I think he was laughing at me!
My father, William Sterling Estes, died following an automobile accident on August 27, 1963, in Jay County, Indiana where he lived with my step-mother, Virgie.
It was just a week before the beginning of my third grade year. For many reasons, none of which I understood at the time, I was not allowed to attend his funeral. Back then, children were often “protected” from sadness and death, but retrospectively, that was a very bad idea. For years, I never really believed he was dead.
The following summer, Virgie invited me to visit and I went to Dunkirk for a week.
I adored Virgie. She was a lovely, kind woman and I looked forward to spending time with her. She told me stories about my father, some of which I never forgot. All of which I wish someone had written down.
Her mother, “Grandma,” who lived with Virgie, was the grandmother I never had and spent long hours reading to me, playing Barbie, making doll clothes and telling me fascinating stories about the cards I viewed through a stereoscopic viewer, like the one below.
Grandma, born in 1878, was a bit more reserved and didn’t say much about Dad at all, except for a grunt now and again which I found interesting, but I didn’t exactly know how to interpret. Grandma was very kind to me and I have very fond memories of long hot summer afternoons spent playing with Grandma. She was one of the few adults that actually had time and enjoyed spending it with children.
I think her own grandchildren had grown up far too fast for her liking.
My mother and father hadn’t seen eye-to-eye for years, to put it mildly. I think it might have had something to do with the fact that he was married to another woman at the same time, but I’m just guessing😊
After being divorced from both women, however that worked, he then married Virgie, his teenage sweetheart from when he was enlisted in WWI, on April 24, 1961.
While my mother had absolutely nothing nice to say about my father, when she said anything at all, Virgie had nothing bad to say about him. Virgie truly loved and cherished my father. I’m glad, I think he really needed that.
Dad left Virgie love notes scattered in hiding places around the house. She found them for years after his death, tucked behind photos in frames and other out-of-the-way places.
Dad’s death was ruled an accident, but retrospectively, I believe it was a suicide based on what his employer, ironically, the funeral director, told me and things Mom said combined with tidbits like those loving mementos. If you didn’t plan on “leaving,” why hide things for someone to find after you were gone?
The First Cemetery Visit
My visit during the summer of 1964 was spent talking with Virgie about Dad. We both missed him.
We spent time going back to the places we three had visited together, like the VFW post. Dad and Virgie played the two slots that sat on the end of the bar, and Dad let me pull the handle. I thought that was loads of fun, especially when it was followed by that nice clanging sound! What fun. Mother would have had a fit.
Everything however, wasn’t fun and games.
Virgie took me to visit the IOOF Cemetery where Dad is buried. I recall that the grave she showed me that summer didn’t have a headstone. Virgie explained that when Dad’s sister, Aunt Margaret, whom I had never met, came from California to visit, they would select a headstone together.
I stood looking at the barren dirt that marked the location of the grave that Virgie told me belonged to my Dad. It seems so raw, so unkempt. The grass was just beginning to grow over the barren grave in raggedy tufts. The earth was still mounded up, washed round by rain but quite pregnant with a casket underneath. In there, Dad’s body.
Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
I desperately wanted to reach out those few feet to touch him one more time, but I couldn’t. Standing there in the glaring sun, looking at the all-too-silent grave of my father ripped my heart out. I had no idea a child could feel grief so profoundly. Tears streamed down my face in the searing heat. My heart ached too badly to even sob. I just stood trance-like as the waterfall tears wouldn’t stop.
Was Daddy really there? Really dead? If anyone would have told me the truth, surely Virgie would have. I didn’t want to believe it.
At Virgie’s house, the cemetery was visible from the end of the street. She allowed me to walk across the field to the cemetery. I could find Dad’s grave, because it was in the new row, towards the back, closest to the house.
I walked to the cemetery every day, a heartbroken little girl. I sat and talked to Dad, and cried, for hours, as curious cemetery-goers looked on but eventually left me alone again. I missed what we had, Dad’s visits, fishing, our special coffee each morning which was mostly milk and sugar with a splash of coffee for color. I grieved for what we would never have.
I grieved and grieved and grieved with no respite.
Virgie told me little about the accident, other than Dad had hit a pole after having a heart attack. At 8, that’s all I needed to know.
She never told me the rest of the story, if she even knew it herself.
The unanswered question wasn’t so much his official cause of death, but why he had the accident in the first place.
What Virgie did say is that his last words, in the hospital before he passed away at 1:10 AM, were about me. Messages of love and encouragement, telling me to never give up and to graduate. I assumed then that he meant high school, but Dad may have had far more in mind.
A Decade+ Later
Virgie wrote letters to both me and Mom over the years, but the next time I would see her would be more than a decade later. In true Hoosier fashion, I just decided to drive to Dunkirk one day a few weeks after my son was born. I wanted to see Virgie and to visit Dad’s grave.
Truth be known, I wanted share my baby with Dad.
I had slowly come to believe that Dad probably was dead. Not because my mother or even Virgie told me so, but because I knew he would never willingly stay away from me that long if he had any choice.
I had also grown up, matured and realized that just because I didn’t want him to be dead was no reason to believe that he wasn’t. 99% of me believed that he was gone. But then, there was that skeptical 1% that still stopped and stared at men who resembled him – to the point of approaching a man on the sidewalk just a couple years earlier, my heart pounding so hard I thought it would burst through my chest.
I wish I had been allowed to say goodbye in the casket.
Calling Virgie in advance to ask if a visit was convenient, for some reason, never dawned on me. She was family – of course it was OK.
I pulled up to Virgie’s house in my bright red Chevy and knocked on the door. Cars were parked outside, and she was hosting a ladies’ card luncheon. She graciously introduced me and her grandbaby that she had never seen before. The women, grandmothers all, ooed and awed. After Virgie finished her hostessing, we caught up on news for awhile before I suggested that we take a ride to the cemetery.
Dad had been gone a decade. The grass had long ago covered the scar of his burial. The earth recovered, flattening itself, as if nothing had gone wrong.
Why was there still no stone on his grave? Aunt Margaret obviously came and went, if she had come at all.
At that time, I was in no position myself to purchase a headstone. It was all I could handle to buy baby formula and diapers.
A headstone in place would have quenched that tiny flame of doubt, but it wasn’t to be.
Another Three Decades
Time passed, life changed. As they say, life is what happens when you are making other plans.
I did graduate from high school and then college with degrees in computer science, a field completely foreign to my father’s world. I left Indiana as a single parent for an opportunity working for a think tank. My trips back to Indiana were to visit my Mom and step-father on the much beloved farm.
The raw urgency of my father’s death had faded and was now only a distant ache, and sometimes a painful stab. Dunkirk wasn’t close to or on the way to anyplace.
I still wrote to Virgie from time to time, always pleased to receive her letters which took me back to a much gentler time and place. She was a lovely lady.
When I remarried, she wrote that she was having health issues and trouble leaving the house for shopping and such, so there would be no wedding present. I didn’t care about presents, but I did care about her letters, and her, and told her as much.
I wanted to see Virgie again and called her from time to time, but in 1989, Virgie died.
After Virgie’s death, her daughter found items of my fathers and sent them to me. I am forever grateful for receiving the veteran’s flag that was placed on his casket at his funeral, then folded and presented to the widow. Oh how I wish I had been present.
Virgie had shown me something signed by President Kennedy after my father died, and now that “something” was mine.
Virgie’s daughter also sent 11 love letters that Virgie received from my Dad when he was young and in service – when they first met in 1919. Virgie saved these for 42 years, thinking of course that she would never see him again, let alone marry him one day. Love letters that would steal your heart, written in his own hand. Hers to cherish then, and mine decades later.
Reading those letters, I understood why they had married 42 years later and why she missed him so desperately. She used to tell me that no matter what anyone told me, he wasn’t all bad, and that no one understood the things that had happened to him. She was right, I had absolutely no idea and wouldn’t for several more years.
In 2003, 40 years after my father died, Virgie’s daughter found a letter from Aunt Margaret, written in 1978, to Virgie. It was this letter, written some 15 years after my father’s death, and coming into my possession another quarter century later that finally shed light on the hole in my father’s soul. That letter is the subject of a future article and it’s a bombshell, believe me.
About this same time, I asked Virgie’s daughter if she could show me where my father was buried, convinced that I would never be able to find it myself. She graciously agreed, and I traveled to Dunkirk.
We met at the cemetery. I had presumed that when Virgie died, that she and my father would share a headstone, but I was wrong.
Virgie did have a stone, beside my father’s grave, but he still had no stone. I was both shocked and saddened and couldn’t help but wonder why.
Virgie’s daughter suggested that we request a military stone based on his service. I didn’t realize that military stones were available. She contacted the funeral home and was informed that they would order the stone, and the family was only responsible for having it set once the stone arrived.
Dad would finally, finally, 40 years after his death, have a marked grave.
Meeting Elizabeth Wilson Ballard
I had meant to visit again shortly after the headstone was placed, but once again, life simply got in the way. Mother became ill, passed away, and suffice it to say, I simply didn’t make it back to Dunkirk. At least, not until this summer.
My 52 Ancestors series has had the effect on me of highlighting unfinished business in terms of research. However, in this case, the unfinished business was visiting my father’s grave.
I was making a trip back to Indiana for research in Fort Wayne, a trip to visit mother’s grave and a class reunion – fully aware that that trip was probably my last trip back – except perhaps to the library in Fort Wayne.
I refer to this as the “Goodbye Tour,” like rock stars😊
For me, in many ways, it was about unfinished business.
After a highly emotionally couple of days, I was messaging back and forth with a genealogy friend from Indiana, Elizabeth Wilson Ballard who writes at Diggin’ Up Graves.
Elizabeth asked where I was, and did I want to meet in person to say hello. I did, but it occurred to me that she was actually relatively close to the cemetery where my father is buried – and what better thing to do with a fellow genealogist.
We agree to meet for lunch, and then drive cross-country on an adventure.
The Cross Country Journey
Indiana farmland is a lot more fun with someone else in the car. Elizabeth and I had never met personally before, but we are convinced that somehow we are related and just can’t figure out how. “Sisters from another Mister,” as Elizabeth quips. Our conversation picked up like we were old acquaintances and had never not known each other.
Using our phones for navigation, we set out cross-country for Dunkirk and the cemetery. My father’s grave is listed on Find-A-Grave, so I at least had an idea of where the cemetery was located.
Leaving Cracker Barrell, the first thing we found was a pink farm, or better stated, a B&B with pink outbuildings. We laughed and joked about how they gave directions, such as, “When you see the pink barns you’re there. Yes, really, you REALLY CANNOT MISS IT.”
And then we laughed all over again.
Comic relief perhaps, but the cornfields and scarecrows felt good as we laughed and chatted our way across the Indiana backroads.
As we approached the cemetery area, from the country side, our tone became more somber, in part, because we had to pay close attention to find the cemetery since we were approaching from the backroads side.
In part, because we both knew what was lurking ahead and neither of us really knew quite what to expect.
Finding the cemetery was a bit comical. Two experienced genealogists really shouldn’t have had this much trouble, but the corn was high and the address was not available from Find-A-Grave so we were doing what I call “dead reckoning.”
I had always approached the IOOF Oddfellows Cemetery from within Dunkirk, and I knew it was within sight of Virgie’s house. But that wasn’t how we arrived. The GPS had a mind of its own.
On the map below, you can see the location of Virgie’s house marked with the red pin, along with the cemetery directly across the field to the west, with the curved end. That part is new and did not exist when my father was buried.
I couldn’t remember where Dad’s grave was located, except that it wasn’t near the county road, and it was near an internal road. It was at the back of the cemetery in 1964.
I looked for the stones that showed burial dates of 1963 and finally found him in the quadrant below with the red arrow.
Finding Dad’s Grave
Finding Dad’s grave in the cemetery was somewhat more of a challenge. We finally found it by finding Virgie’s stone, which was larger and her name faced the main road, or west, as you see it below. This is what we saw driving down the internal cemetery road from the main county road.
The “other” side of Virgie’s stone, which I would have considered the front, is where the dates are carved, and that side faces towards her house, or east.
Before we move on, I want to mark the location of Dad’s stone for posterity. I don’t know who would ever want to visit, all things considered, but if someone does, the red arrow below is pointing to his stone.
Here’s the location from a different perspective.
In the cemetery, you’ll notice that Dad’s small white stone is directly behind and to the right of the red McGraw stone, and to the left of the Brown stone when driving in from the main road.
Here’s my vehicle parked in front of the spruce tree in the photo, at the intersection of the little cemetery roads inside the cemetery. You can see the red McGraw stone directly behind my rear bumper.
Ummm, But Where’s Dad?
Ok, now we found the stone, but where is Dad actually buried? And why would I even ask a question like this? It’s obvious, isn’t it?
Of course, the first thing you’ll notice is that while Virgie and Dad both have carving on the front (West) side where his dates are carved, Virgie’s birth and death dates are carved on the “other” (East) side. His East side is blank, above.
Which begs the question of where the bodies are buried.
What the heck???
This is beginning to sound like a murder mystery, not cemetery stomping!
I thought burials were on the “date” side, so you’re standing on their head as you look at their birth and death dates. After all, it’s called a headstone.
And regardless, if it’s the other way around, and they are buried on the back side, you’d think it would at least be consistent in the same cemetery. And if not in the same cemetery, at LEAST consistent with a couple who share the same burial plot? But their dates are carved on opposite sides.
And where are they actually buried?
Clearly, one is not buried on one side and one on the other, so one is buried on the date side and the other is buried on the “other” side – since I’m making a leap of faith here and assuming that they are actually both buried side by side on the same side.
Elizabeth and I were both confused, and we were not leaving without figuring this out.
But how does one do that?
Thank goodness we were the Genealogy Dynamic Duo!
The first thing we did was to look around at the other graves. If you look behind me as I’m leaning against Dad’s grave (the blank East side), you’ll notice that the stones behind me aren’t consistent either.
We realized that some graves have flat stones that look to be between graves, which was very confusing. A grave consumes a certain amount of space.
However, I walked until I found a flat one that was a footstone for the headstone in the same row as Dad’s grave. AHA!
This footstone confirmed that the bodies were buried on the “back side,” meaning the side with Virgie’s dates and the side that is blank on my Dad’s stone, that I’m leaning against, above. So I was sitting on Dad in that picture.
Why the heck would someone set the stones for a couple differently? Why would they set Dad’s stone with his body on the blank side, and Virgie’s the opposite? Her’s was already in place when they placed his. Wouldn’t they have faced it the same way?
Elizabeth remembered that she had been told that cemeteries always face the east so that when the Rapture comes, the bodies will “rise up” from the graves facing east. If this is the case, then Dad’s head is indeed at the headstone, right where this headstone/footstone grave down the row would seem to indicate. And true to the religious custom, if he stood straight up out of his grave, he would be facing east.
So this is where Dad is actually buried, below, at the back of his marker.
NOT on the date side (below). All I can say is that I’m EXTREMELY glad I didn’t exhume Dad for DNA testing, given the possible confusion. Whoever considered that he might have been buried on the OTHER side of the tombstone?
I hadn’t thought about taking flowers, since this visit was very much a spur-of-the-moment event, so Elizabeth and I picked some wildflowers and decorated their graves as best we could. No, these are not weeds. Weeds are a matter of perspective:)
I can tell that Virgie’s family comes to visit her grave.
Dad’s grave looks naked by comparison.
Truthfully, I still wasn’t convinced, so after returning home, I called the funeral home and the cemetery sexton. When I said I was confused, they both started laughing. Apparently there is no consistency and yes, the bodies ARE BURIED, at least in this section, on the east side of the markers.
So, Dad is buried on the blank side and Virgie is buried on the date side and they are buried side by side. That explains why the little angels and things her family leaves sit on that side of the stone.
For the record, I did inquire as to how much it would cost to turn his tombstone around. I never heard back after three calls, so I’m not going to have it rotated. However, if anyone should ever visit and discover that it has been turned, someone did a veteran a favor.
One mystery solved, but now a difficult decision.
To Go or Not to Go?
My father died by suicide. I didn’t know that until I was an adult. I found the newspaper article and using Google maps, I had determined where his accident occurred.
When I was a child, clearly Virgie never discussed this nor took me to the place that claimed his life.
As an adult, should I go or not?
Grief is an exceptionally private emotion – especially when it involves suicide. So many thoughts swirl through your brain.
Elizabeth already knew about the circumstances of my father’s death, and she and I had previously talked about all sorts of difficult topics, of which suicide was only one. Her understanding, nonjudgmental presence was comforting to me.
Was I prepared to see where my father died?
Did I even want to?
I knew it was either now or never.
What would it be?
I asked Elizabeth her opinion, as we sat in my car in the cemetery, beside my father’s grave.
If I could have only turned and asked him why.
Elizabeth and I discussed the pros and cons, and eventually reached the consensus that I should “go for it” and that we were both mentally prepared. Neither of us quite knew what to expect. How do you prepare for something like that?
How could I anticipate how I would feel? It’s not something I’ve ever done before – and not something I ever want to have to do again either.
The first thing I did, however, was to drive to where I thought I remembered Virgie’s house being located.
I remembered, as a child, walking from Virgie’s house, directly down the street, across the field, to the cemetery. It was a straight shot. As I drove to where I thought it was, I was rewarded with this vision. This is the same view I remember from those hot summer days that I spent sitting beside my father’s grave.
I drove on down the street and indeed, found Virgie’s house. It looks a lot different today, of course, but it’s still the same house. That window above the kitchen was the upstairs bedroom where I slept. I pretended it was a fun secret room in a castle.
The porch looked so familiar. Grandma and I used to sit there, fanning ourselves during the heat of the day. Sometimes Grandma would read and I would sew my Barbie clothes, with her looking on watchfully, of course. The address on the porch confirms that indeed, it’s 202 Shadyside.
Mt. Auburn at Main
My father died at the location of Mt. Auburn and Main. The newspaper article about his death stated that he “was traveling westbound on Mt. Auburn at the time of the accident and his car struck a pole 100 feet west of North Main Street.
Using Google maps, I had already determined that the pole he hit was the one at the location of the grey pin on the map, below, far left. What looks like a street where the pole is located is actually an alley.
Once again, Elizabeth navigated using her phone as I drove.
This time, we proceeded in silence, except for an occasional “turn right” or “turn left.”
Sitting at the corner of Mt. Auburn and Main, I can see the pole in the distance in the alley, beside the yellow garage and behind the trash container, dead center ahead. This would have been where he sat, or didn’t, those last few fateful minutes.
I felt like I was in a time warp. There it was.
Looking up the street, there isn’t another pole that could be hit without going through a house and the article would surely have mentioned hitting a house had that occurred.
No other poles were visible in either direction.
Did he intentionally aim between the houses?
Why this location? Was it a split second decision? Had he been drinking? Or was he remorseful because he had fallen off the wagon.
Or, was there something else? My mother thought that he was ill at the time of his death, based on his health when they lived together. More specifically, she thought he had cancer, but there was no mention of that and he had an autopsy.
Elizabeth and I knew that particular pole was the only candidate, and it was located exactly as the article described. Utility poles aren’t often moved because the wires are attached.
We pulled down the alley.
A fist-sized lump appeared, not in my throat, but in my stomach as we approached.
That pole is old, bearing the scars of many years of climbing. It’s possible that it could be the same pole that was there at the time. Or was the pole was replaced when he hit it?
Looking back from the other side, it’s somehow ironic that red paint had been sprayed on the pole. I know it’s meaningless, but just the same…
Physics of the Accident
Because I’m who I am, I have to understand this.
Dad would have hit the pole from the back side, towards the road and away from the alley. Given the speed involved, I suspect that the pole would have been damaged, and this pole does not seem to bear that kind of scar – although I’m certainly not an expert in utility pole collision damage. Wooden utility poles are generally expected to survive for about 40 years although some last much longer. He died 55 years ago.
How fast was he going, and what would have happened to the pole?
At 40 MPH, your body (and car) are moving at 58 feet per second. This was also before seat belts, so his body would have crashed into the steering wheel, which was moving towards him at the speed in which his car, a Rambler, crashed into the pole. The pole would probably not have fractured at those speeds, according to impact studies, but would clearly have been damaged.
At 40 MPH, his car would have traveled that entire distance of 100 feet between the intersection and the pole in less than two seconds. If he was traveling at 20 MPH, the distance would have taken a total of 3.5 seconds. In a Road and Track article, Lt. Dan Bates says that in older cars, just 20 years ago, one stood a good chance of dying if you were traveling at 20 MPH and had a head-on accident into a stationary object like a pole. Dad didn’t die right away, so he probably wasn’t traveling at a terribly high speed.
This causes me to ponder another question.
If Dad had floored the gas pedal, he would have hit harder and faster – at least I would think so.
Did he change his mind part way through a suicide attempt, but too late to stop?
That thought nauseates me.
Elizabeth and I sat in the alley for several minutes and discussed the dynamics of the situation – both physical and personal. I’m surprised no one called the police.
She asked me if I was alright. I tend to “go silent” at times like this and just think. My thoughts were swirling and tumbling over each other in a 55-year-delayed grief-filled blizzard of emotions.
I was more saddened by visiting the place that took his life which looks so innocuous than by visiting the cemetery where he is buried. The place where he decided to die. The place where uncontrollable grief and agony of some description overtook him, then took him. The place where the darkness won and death seemed like the best option. The place where his heart ached enough to end his life and remove himself from mine.
I could feel it all, sitting there, just a few days shy of that terrible anniversary – a summer day much like when he pushed that gas pedal, knowing full well what would happen.
Seeing that pole rush towards him – what was he thinking?
All parents pass away eventually. We will all one day have a cemetery to visit, but not everyone has a utility pole. Not everyone has to deal with the knowledge of suicide and wonder why? What pained a loved one that much?
Did he think or know that he was ill and dying? If so, that’s easier to handle than other demons that might have driven him here.
Did he fall off the wagon, again, as Virgie’s daughter suggested, and unable to deal with the guilt, personal disappointment and pain it would cause others, decide to end that never-ending battle with alcohol forever? God, I hope not.
I wonder what might have been different had he lived? How would my life have changed? And would it have been for the better or worse?
Unanswered questions. Unremitting pain and sorrow. But there’s no turning back time. No other road. Just this one – the path he chose.
He’s my father. The childhood me adored him. I love the man I knew.
I ache for his pain and the loss that affected us both so tragically. His pain ended that day, but mine was just beginning.
Heartfelt thanks to Elizabeth, indeed, sister-from-another-mister, for her support and encouragement during the final chapter of this part of my journey.