When I was younger my dad used to take my brother and I hiking through the oak-laden woods of Western New York. “If you look closely, you might be able to find some arrowheads,” he’d say. Very dad-like, but that was enough to send us scourging for hours, because I used to believe— and still do— that he was right. Those natives weren’t so removed from my present. Surely I’d be able to find some of their leftovers! But that’s also the blessing and the burden of being of the historical mindset: the past is always almost close enough to touch; almost clear enough to see. I can’t tell you how many childhood moments I spent waiting for an Iroquois to tap me on the shoulder.
Have you ever heard of Caneadea, New York? If you have, we should talk, because I’m sure you have some sort of connection to the place, and that our ancestors probably rubbed elbows at a social gathering. It’s about 1.5 hours from Buffalo and perhaps about 2 from Rochester. The path to get there— rt. 19 to rt. 49— has that same sort of off-the-grid, backroads of Geneseo feel, but this one is different: this is the path of my roots, ancestrally speaking.
Caneadea Cemetery isn’t fully abandoned, but the nature of its abandonment is a unique type that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I’ve been coming at least once a summer with my dad for as far back as I can remember. It was there in that cemetery where I waited for the natives of Western New York to emerge from the brush and offer me an arrowhead as a sign of alliance. In between the graves of my ancestors I envisioned a lifetime older than I was, not just because of my historically-bent mind, but because I had never witnessed another person visit the cemetery while we were there, let alone discover any new grave sites. The place seems lonely; stagnant. An outhouse-sized caretaker’s quarters that had been in disrepair since prior to my arrival on the grounds, with layers of spiderwebs forming a cotton blanket over the outsides of the windows, was nowhere in site upon my arrival this past summer. While I questioned whether or not anyone had even opened its doors in decades, it was solidified proof that whatever oversight that took place since the spiders began weaving their webs failed to be enough to warrant that of a caretaker. When he walked away from his last day of work, it seemed he took his job away with him.
This all isn’t to say that individuals don’t look out at all for the cemetery. New flags make their way to the fallen heroes, mostly from a regiment that fought in the Civil War, including a great, great, great grandfather of mine, and every so often it seems as though the lawn is cut. Whether this care is taken by someone from the town, however, is unclear, but I have my reasons for believing it’s not coming from the cemetery itself.
Many of the stones are fractured in a curious way— the tops laid carefully at the base, their writing weathered and slightly overgrown. In fact, some of the stones have been so enveloped that it’s difficult to tell where dirt and stone divide in certain areas. Some sites are completely covered. My great grandmother’s grave, Pearl, is so close to the edge of a small mountain that a good erosive winter might give us cause for concern come Spring. Sadly, my grandparents don’t have headstones (burials the result of cross-country sibling travel and the continual plan-makings that just push all plans to the future, including plans for headstones), which makes me wonder just who else might be without one, and without any loved ones to acknowledge them above ground. But I have to say, it’s beautiful. Even when you notice a stone you hadn’t seen before, or a freshly placed vase you could have sworn wasn’t there moments ago when you walked by, it’s still eerily comforting. Then again, it is there I picture the ongoings of my people. A Civil War Soldier, children taken too soon, and my Grandpa Fred— a celebrated boy scout who saved someone from drowning, earning his fifteen minutes of Erie County fame— were they ever here?
The berries and fresh water that runs into Rushford Lake remind me that life will still beat on. Long after the last arrowhead has weathered and last flag planted, the land’s hand will play a role in the area’s unique abandonment. And like the caretaker, when I’m standing in the midst of it all, I can’t help but wonder if it would be possible— if I stood there long enough— to watch it all slowly start to happen.
Perhaps next July. Be on the look-out for the follow-up, avid readers.