We find the headstone for Captain Christopher Lillard’s second wife Minerva today. Two weeks earlier we discovered Captain Christopher himself and his first wife Sally, who died at the age of thirty-five. All the markers were buried under two inches of topsoil and brush and shattered stones from the rock wall enclosing the 175-year-old family cemetery ruin on the back of my father’s farm that my husband, my father, and I have been clearing. It’s good work, but backbreaking: part archaeology, part extreme gardening. The death dates for Minerva and Christopher, August 17 and August 19, 1855, confirm what we already know: they died of cholera. Death records for Anderson County show cholera was raging in the middle of August and that three other members of the Lillard household died that same week. One other of the extended family in the graveyard died the same day as Captain Christopher. Who dug the graves and when did the curve flatten?
At the site is evidence for other outbuildings, an entire and prosperous household. Piles of bricks and blocks of stacked creek stone are overgrown by a copse of cedar and honeysuckle. An ancient Osage orange tree marks where a house stood. We walk the four stone corners of the foundation for some other small building nearby. Further afield, I stare into a large, open cistern: twelve feet deep, easily twenty feet across. It’s an impressive construction, built with the same dry stack technology and creek stone that frames the cemetery, but we can’t figure out its use. There’s no evidence of a cover or low roof. It might have been an ice house or cold storage for root vegetables. It’s full of farm junk now– bale wire, old tires, sheets of corrugated tin. My dad remembers that he disposed of a dead calf in there years ago.
Somewhere there must have been a well for water and from which they all drank.
Technically we’ve broken the #HealthyatHome mandate from our good governor to make this visit, but our strictly observed sheltering and my dad’s solitary existence in a rural county persuade us (perhaps wrongly) that our tiny household in this tiny part of the world is safe. On the way home, we bump over the fields in his farm truck and stop to pick mint from a creek bed running cold with spring rain. We’re going to make mint juleps for a post time celebration for a horse race that won’t happen. It’s the first Saturday of May: Kentucky Derby Day. A time for families to be together. The evening air is pleasant, the mood nostalgic. It’s hard to imagine what the August heat will bring.
–May 2, 2020
Lynnell Edwards is associate programs director for Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing where she is also faculty in poetry and professional writing. She is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently This Great Green Valley (Broadstone Books 2020) and lives in Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby.