Crisp, short grass crunches beneath my summer sandals and stray strands of straw poke at the sides of my feet. The air is heavy with smoke from late smoldering September forest fires in northern Idaho. It thickens my sinuses and one eye is prone to weep. But the sun shines through the haze to illuminate the gilded wheat stubble that mats the deep rolling hills of eastern Washington’s Palouse region. I stand upon the crest of one such golden knoll and I can see for miles and miles in every direction. Hawks drift overhead, hunting the fields, and if it weren’t for the modern tractor disking a distant hill of wheat I would not know what era I stand in by regarding swells of summer gold beneath iron skies. I slowly spin, eyeing the open splendor that surrounds me, understanding why Rachel would want to buried here.
It was a warm April day when Rachel crested this hill with her four youngest sons, the eldest being 12. His name was a mouthful—William Sheridan Monroe Hatley—so no doubt it was easier to just call him “Roe.” The grass must have been soft and green like a newborn’s skin, and the sky clear and blue. The younger boys, Walter, Bert and Archie chased sparrows and each other not knowing that in a few days they would be motherless. Roe seemed to know. He never left Rachel’s side as she soaked in that sprawling view on the hill above her new house—the one Riley built for her with slender Spanish columns lining the porch. She was only 45; mother to nine living children and one dead and buried on the hill.
Gracie, Rachel named her baby girl who never got to run the hills, trailing after brothers. Gracie who never got to wear her mama’s apron or admire her pretty sisters. Gracie, such a sweet name, familiar, like a nickname, not proper and distant, but common and close. A name you give a baby after holding her in your arms, nuzzled to your breast. A name you whisper to your husband, “Look, it’s our little Gracie.” Gracie, Rachel mourned with verse, and Riley would carve in marble with double the grief:
The little crib is empty now,
The little clothes laid by,
A mother’s hope, a father’s joy,
In death’s cold arms doth lie.
The babe was born on the Hatley Ranch of Union Flat upon the Palouse Feb. 9, 1892. She breathed her first and last that day. Rachel never recovered, but it took two years for her to die. I imagine that Rachel was sweet, too, a grown Gracie. What few haggard photos remain of Rachel are not flattering. Somehow, they make her look old and harsh. If you look carefully at the family photo when Roe was about 4 years old, you will see how gently her hand rests upon his shoulder and how he leans toward his mother’s calico-clad lap, yet calm and confident as a boy who is loved can look. How little do we really know of a woman from a photo or two?
Roe knew Rachel. He knew her well enough to know that she had something important to say that day upon the hill among the greening native bunchgrass. She stood silent for a long time, drinking in the view. Roe waited for her to speak. Maybe her hands were shaky, maybe she was gaunt, pale, tired. Roe knew she was frail, a big thing for a little boy to notice of his mother. Finally, Rachel spoke in a low, soft voice, “This is where I wish to be buried.” As the family story goes, she died a few days later on April 13, 1894 and was laid to rest on the hill she chose for her eternity.
If a photo doesn’t reveal much of a woman’s life, the testimony can be found in a tombstone. Tall, elegant, pale golden marble speaks of the love that Riley had for his wife Rachel. Intricate carvings of flowers, an urn, a bible and a slender hand pointing heavenward decorate Rachel’s marker. Gracie is memorialized, too, a testament to a mother’s love and tenderness. Riley even remembered to carve the verse below Gracie’s name and added his own beneath Rachel’s:
Tis hard to break the tender chord,
When love has bound the heart,
Tis hard, so hard, to speak the word,
Must we forever part.
The hill is now a cemetery—the Hatley Cemetery and it is still on the Hatley Ranch homesteaded in 1877. Rachel’s house became home to Riley’s second wife and their children whose children’s children still harvest wheat and raise cattle on the Palouse. Roe lived and farmed the Palouse the rest of his life, succumbing to old age when I was just two-years old. A 2nd great grand uncle I never knew. What would he have told me of Rachel?
It is dry and warm and I am reading tombstones of Hatleys I have never met, but am related to. I can see Rachel’s marble monument across the way, yet I am feeling shy. So many times I have recorded or photographed graves for others; so many times I have sought my husband’s ancestors. But this place is mine. In the rich, black earth beneath the golden wheat and brittle summer grass is blood of my blood. My kin. I approach the marble and my weepy, smoke-stung eye begins to cry. Rachel, Grandmother. I lay my hand upon the smooth stone and feel so much more than old photos and census records can tell me. I feel my grandmother, my 3rd great grandmother who does not feel so far removed at the moment. Sweet, she is sweet. She was my age when she died. I drop to my knees and talk to her. Rachel is holding Gracie and I can see them standing on the knoll, her skirts snapping with a summer wind. Boys running circles around her. She brushes back a strand of her chestnut hair and smiles the way she did at Roe.
Another verse comes to mind, “Here in heaven I will wait for your revival. Here in heaven you will finally understand.”