Pedaling between headstones

It’s not like I woke up thinking yesterday would be the day to hang out in a cemetery. I did plan to take the day off, overwhelmed by stress related to work these past few weeks. A good day to take a hike, work in the yard, or take a bike ride. I miss commuting by bike to work –at least most of the route, and so originally the idea was to head toward OHSU but deviate down through River View Cemetery, cross the river and head home via Oregon City. Alas, I never made it out of the cemetery (okay, I mean till it was time to head home) as my quest to locate family gravestones became a more complicated task than what I naively had imagined. And even more meaningful.

Although I was intimately involved in my parents’ final arrangements, including arranging for and receiving ashes following their deaths, visiting family headstones wasn’t a routine tribute ever in my past. Once, on a lark, as I headed to a meeting in Salem, I stopped off at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery to visit the gravestone for my great-great-great-grandparents, Chloe Clarke Willson and William Holden Willson. I was under prepared for that visit as well, grateful to encounter an early morning dog walker who happened to know where Chloe and William’s headstone was located.

So, yesterday morning I originally decided to visit my grandmother’s grave at River View Cemetery. Most every time I’ve ridden my bike through this cemetery (Out-of-Towners may not know it to be a cyclist’s dream connection, though steep heading up, between Southeast Portland’s Sellwood Bridge and Southwest Terwilliger near Lewis and Clark College) I hoped to come across the grave of this namesake of mine, yet never before armed with the exact information to locate it.

During breakfast I utilized River View’s search and map functions to locate, as I had before, the parcel holding my grandmother’s remains. This time I wrote it down. Immediately after I thought: the others are here too! I searched and jotted down two other locations holding my great and great-greats. I had no idea then that not only would I find headstones for these ancestors, but that other family members’ gravestones would lie nearby, great aunts and uncles, great-great aunts and uncles, and another set of great-grandparents.

River View Cemetery, for those unfamiliar, lies adjacent to the Willamette River, just south of downtown Portland. The cemetery was founded as a non-profit cemetery by William Ladd, James Terwilliger, Henry Failing, Henry Corbett, Henry Pittock, and others in 1882. In fact, one set of my great-grandparents’ plot lies in between that of the entire Failing family, and the Corbett monument, and was originally party of the Failing family plot. I would imagine that many of those buried earliest here shared privileges and benefits related to race, education and income, and unavailable to others.

While some might complain about these ~350 original acres of valuable land being wasted in this manner, I imagine just as many others prefer the quiet and beauty of what is there today rather than another huge housing development. As it turns out, only about half of that acreage is cemetery as trends away from burial reduced the demand for this space. Eventually the River View Cemetery Association did attempt to change zoning to allow residential development on some of the property. We are fortunate that the City of Portland purchased well over 100 acres of undeveloped surplus from the Association for trails and habitat protection. In the past decade, River View has added the option of natural burials, identifying areas that would not be mowed, chemical fertilizers and pesticides avoided, and caskets limited to biodegradable materials.

After parking my bike and wandering aimlessly for a bit, I was thankful to have my cell phone, knowing I would never find the plot in this manner. I was grateful to speak with staff who kindly told me, once I recited the family names and locations, she would put maps together for me if I dropped down the hill to the cemetery office. I coasted down, parked my bike, donned my mask, and entered near the chapel –fully aware of two other parties waiting, grieving for more recent losses than mine as they awaited service. I profusely thanked the staff for their help in securing the maps, as well as for the services given our family recently. Not until handling cremation arrangements for my parents did I understand the importance played by those in the funeral and cremation industry. Our family has received respect, comfort and kindness from River View following my mom’s recent death, and previously after Dad’s. Their ashes have been or will be shared among mountains and beaches, not this cemetery, as in their wishes.

Finally, I was prepared to track down my loved ones from the past. I had been told in the office, somewhat hesitantly, that bikes weren’t allowed in the cemetery during the three-day Memorial Day weekend. Although I am mostly a strict rule follower, I did continue to bike between cemetery locations, although I spent far more time walking than cycling as my grave map-reading skills improved in each moment. I was surprised by how emotional this visit was for me. Although most of these ancestors I had never met, I have spent hours and days and years learning, writing and sharing stories about them.

Of all my family members besides my parents, it is likely I have written the most about my great-great grandfather, Joseph Kaye (most commonly known as J.K.) Gill. J.K.’s name is still known by many in Portland and beyond, largely because of the long standing book and stationary store he began. (See: J.K. Gill: in 5 minutes or less.) However, it is my great-great grandmother, Frances Willson Gill, whose parents were Chloe Clarke and William Willson (teacher and carpenter in early Oregon with the Jason Lee Missionaries, and later associated with Willamette University). Frances was an early graduate of Willamette University. (Anyone interested in these early Oregon stories should check out chapters 5, 6, 13, 15, and 16 in My Music Man. (Don’t want to buy it? Check your local library!) I’m not sure why I hadn’t also anticipated to find the remains of J.K. and Frances’ children also in this hillside spot, where rhododendrons show off their fancy spring colors and maple and fir trees dance in the breeze.

I didn’t come prepared with tools or supplies to clean the headstones, and instead used a stick to dig out the moss from the etched lettering in J.K and Frances’ stone, and my water bottle and spare sweatshirt to clean off the dust. I did, however, leave a few azalea and rhody blossoms.

Readers of My Music Man and my blogs might recognize William Andrew Montgomery’s name as one of the original Portland footballers (see: Oregon Football and Stadiums: A recap). He and my great-grandmother Georgia William Gill (daughter of J.K. and Frances) lived on NW Thurman when my dad was young and before that were active in early Portland Opera. William also sang for years with the men’s singing group, the Apollo Club. William A. Montgomery lived from 1866-1963, still going in to “work” as the manager of Gill’s for many of those last years, even after suffering a stroke. He lost his wife Georgia nine years earlier as she lived from 1873-1954.

I’ll have to go back during less sunnier time as it was difficult to get a good picture of this stone.

It was my dear grandmother, Dorothy Frances Haradon Montgomery, who set me on this journey today. In My Music Man, my grandparents are referred to as WhoWho and Daddy Dick. WhoWho was my namesake, my most special person to visit daily much of my childhood and teens, and my confidante. I think of her often even all these years later. Richard Gill Montgomery, Sr., or Daddy Dick, was the author of The White-Headed Eagle and two other books, and also shows up in many of my stories in both my memoir and blog (see: The Chief Factor returns). I was unprepared to find headstones marking my grandmother’s parents and two brothers next to Daddy Dick and WhoWho. For I have also written about this set of great-grandparents, Ard and Delia Haradon, who during my dad’s childhood, owned a farm on the Willamette near Butteville where Dad first rowed his little boat to get a bottle of soda pop. Delia gave me my middle name, and, so the story goes, also told Mom that “Dorothy Delia” was an awful long name for a small baby so why not call me Dede.” I relate the somewhat tragic stories of my grandmother’s two brothers, or my great uncles in my memoir as well. WhoWho lost her youngest brother Frank when he fell from the cliffs at Tillamook Head, while John died as a fairly young man: and whose story our dad claimed helped him become alcohol free at mid-life.

I imagine these loved ones of the past, while tonight I light the candles at my altar, stare into the photo of my beautiful grandmother, parents and friends. And know, in my sorrow, I am grateful. For the love. And the stories.

Our Whowho is to the left of the younger picture of Mom, both pictures in front of the green velvet bag containing Mom’s ashes from River View, in wait for their final destination this summer.

4 thoughts on “Pedaling between headstones

  1. I enjoyed this. Cemeteries can be both quiet places and powerful locations for reflecting on the past. I remember a long walk through a large cemetery during my college semester in Germany. The presence of history with chiseled dates from the 17th century made a strong impression on me, never having been previously far outside Oregon. Mostly I remember efforts to navigate the still recent (in 1988) memories of the war: graves of foreign airmen, mass graves from an air raid that destroyed most of the city in one night (“unbekannt” (unknown) written 14 times on each marker), and graves of German soldiers with no reference to the Third Reich (I remember in English but have lost the German: “they loved their country”). I had an assignment to write an article for the school newspaper for foreign students. My advisor wanted something flashy and fun like a nightclub review. I wrote about the cemetery as a history lesson. My advisor printed it. Many thanks for your walk/ride to a place closer to home.

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  2. Wonderful, Dede! This is the third time I have tried to comment. The other two were long. This one won’t be. Remind me to tell you about my grandmother, who’s buried in River View. (I don’t know if the problem is me or WordPress.com)

    Liked by 1 person

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