We had a hard time finding her grave. We were in the Tahoma Cemetery in Yakima, Washington, on the eastern side of the Cascade mountains, an area known for its fruit and wines. We were looking for my great-grandparents, Charley and Nettie Libolt.
The map of the cemetery didn’t seem to help much. We knew from older pictures that the stones marking their graves were flat to the ground. The upright stones were visible, but the flat stones were covered with a thick layer of something like vetch. It took us a while to discover that under the vetch were stones and then to figure a system to zero in on my great-grandparents graves, but at last I discovered Charley’s marker, a proper stone set in concrete with his name, Charles M. Libolt, and his dates, January 6, 1856-January 29, 1927.
I knew that Nettie’s was several graves over. Pushing around the vetch with my feet, I found her marker. I could barely make out her name, “Nettie Libolt” incised on a small piece of deteriorating concrete. No dates. No proper stone.
I got down on my knees, and with my bare hands—I had no tools with me—I began clearing away the vetch from the marker when Jerry showed up. Jerry—I’ll not use his last name—was in his SUV, a whip antenna on top and police radio blaring over the speaker. He had stopped just behind us. We were the only people in the cemetery. He said, “Can I help you?”
He could indeed. I asked him if he had something that would help us clear the vetch from Nettie’s grave. He flashed me a grin and grabbed a string trimmer from the back of his car. In minutes he had cut back the vetch from the grave, and we could see Nettie’s marker more clearly. Looking down at it, Jerry said, “That’s a poverty marker. Those plain concrete markers were supplied by the cemetery to mark graves for people who couldn’t afford to pay for a gravestone.”
A poverty marker? A sadness crept over me. My great-grandmother too poor to be afford a proper marker for her grave. And here’s the mystery: Charley, who did have a proper marker, died just nine days after Nettie. Why a marker for him and not for her? And why were they buried apart, not side-by-side but with another couple separating them?
I don’t know the answers to these questions or many others about my great-grandparents. My father never met them. They moved from Nebraska to Wapato in the Yakima area before 1920, pausing in Montana. When they died that January of 1927, he was only ten.
I do know this about Nettie. She was born Annetta Sylvester in Watervliet, Michigan. She could trace her family back to one Richard Sylvester who arrived in Massachusetts in 1630, very early in the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded 1628). I know that she worked for my great-great-grandparents, James and Martha Libolt in Nebraska. When she dated one of the Libolt boys, Martha took her aside and told her that he was the wrong one. She had another son for her. That son was Charley.
As I stood over her grave and looked down at the poverty stone, I said a prayer, a resurrection prayer. I had in mind the last verse of 1 Corinthians 15, the great passage on resurrection: “So then my beloved friends, be steady, unshakable, always overflowing in the Lord’s work, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” I take the last clause to mean that in the Lord nothing is lost. Nothing we have done or are. Even if our life is buried under the vetch and marked by a poor piece of concrete.