Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: The magnetic pull of cemeteries

Taking a little sabbatical in the midst of writing the final chapter of a book about the families living around the Coker Settlement, an assignment that has me digging, figuratively speaking, through the graveyard for long-buried clues about their lives.

So where did we accidentally wind up on our first day in Italy trying to walk off the fog from staying awake all night to fly across the ocean? A cemetery.

A beautiful, parklike cemetery with acres and acres of Renaissance-style arcades and mausoleums. The grounds of Certosa di Ferrara originally belonged to a Carthusian monastery founded in 1461, but the monks found their compound within the walls of Ferrara when Ercule d’Este, now resting there, expanded and fortified the city in 1492. The final blow, however, was delivered by Napoleon when he confiscated all church lands at the end of the 1700s.

With such wonderful names engraved there  – Chiavissimo Zabardi, known for his austere ideals and honest work before he died in 1910; Achille Valli, an early publicista who departed this world in 1915; Illuminata and Giuseppe Solovagione, with their photos perched atop a whole family tree of their descendants who later joined them – I could have wandered for hours wondering about their stories.

Yet, this was our first day in Italy. How could I spend it among the dead?

So the Mister tugged gently on my arm, and we left to begin exploring the more vibrant areas of Ferrara in Emilia Romagna, Italy.

Cemeteries are such peaceful places, but, after all, we will have much more time than we desire to spend in one later. Much later, I hope.

Struggling and longing to be ‘fictionalized’

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So can identify with the whining of the main character in “How Shall I Know You,” a short story in Hilary Mantel‘s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

The woman is an author who has been “struggling with a biography” for several years.

As a biographer I was more than usually inefficient in untangling my subject’s accursed genealogy. I mixed up Aunt Virginie with the one who married the Mexican, and spent a whole hour with a churning stomach, thinking that all my dates were wrong and believing that my whole Chapter Two would have to be reworked.

Why, I can out-whine her any day. I have a whole cemetery I’m trying to untangle, and I’m sure I’m at least three years into it. And it is filled with a multitude of Smiths and Joneses and Cokers, many of whom inconsiderately passed down the same first names over and over. The Joneses prove particularly difficult, as they originate from two completely unrelated lines, or unrelated for quite a while before the Texas Revolution and not again until some time later.

And she only spent “a whole hour” thinking everything was awry? That’s nothing.

The author in the short story finds writing the truth, when it has to be uncovered, difficult.

I seemed to be pining for those three short early novels, and their brittle personnel. I felt a wish to be fictionalized.

Making up things does seem much easier than digging up facts long-buried. Often I want to just linger in the tub imagining different lives among all of those Coker descendants. The writer in “How Shall I Know You” does just that. She starts typing up exciting invented versions of the lives of Aunt Virginie and the Mexican, completely avoiding the facts associated with the original subject of the biography.

But, unfortunately, you just can’t make this stuff up.

And, I know I don’t need to.

The Coker Cemetery is fertile with true tales that should be passed on to the descendants of the residents resting there.

I’ve made it through the Texas Revolution, the arrival of German and Hungarian settlers and the Civil War. I’m getting there. Slowly.

Each nugget I discover is rewarding. In addition to the everyday stories of hardworking dairy farmers, there is a surprising bit of murder and mayhem to entertain me.

All I need is patience. And an extremely large dose of it.

the-assassination-of-margaret-thatcherWait a minute. Wolf Hall. Bring Up the Bodies.

The author of the author in the short story is the ultimate award-winning, best-selling researcher.

All whining privileges on my part are hereby revoked.

Remembering everyday people: Our rural heritage merits attention

Photograph of the old rock house on the Voelcker Farm taken by Dudley Harris for "Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill"
Photograph of the old rock house on the Voelcker Farm taken by Dudley Harris from “Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill”

Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker loved and fiercely protected their land from encroaching, encircling development swallowing up neighboring farms. The towering trees shading walkers in Phil Hardberger Park result from their stewardship.

Max and Minnie were not well-known in San Antonio, unless you were a frustrated real estate developer trying to court them. They were just plain, ordinary people. Like most of us.

Photograph by Dudley Harris of the Voelcker Dairy barn for "Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill"
Photograph by Dudley Harris of the Voelcker Dairy barn from “Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill”

What the retired dairy farmers never would have envisioned is that their old farm would end up safeguarded by the city that endangered it. The city’s Office of Historic Preservation has submitted a nomination to include the farmstead on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Preservation News:

The Max and Minnie Voelcker Dairy Farm, located in San Antonio’s Phil Hardberger Park, was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places this past spring. The farmstead exemplifies a turn-of-the-century agricultural landscape with preserved late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings. The State Board of Review met on May 17, 2014, in Austin to review the application.  The Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) received a matching $10,000 Certified Local Government Grant to hire a consultant to prepare the nomination. The nomination assessment was prepared by Brandy Harris, M. Kelley Russell, Lila Knight, Ryan Fennell, Nesta Anderson, and Karissa Basse. The $10,000 grant was matched in-kind by the OHP through the execution of a survey in the West Sector Plan area of the city.  OHP staff members involved in the survey included Adriana Ziga, Kay Hindes, and OHP volunteer Brenda Laureano.  The nomination will now move forward to the National Park Service.

last-farm-coverI never met Max and Minnie but was offered the opportunity to delve into their lives deeply when retained by the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund to tell their story. The resulting book, Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill, in turn led me to even more concentrated involvement in the history of the dairy farms that surrounded the Voelcker Farm on San Antonio’s near north side.

As I struggle to uncover bits and pieces of the lives of their neighbors from the Coker Settlement resting beside them in the Coker Cemetery and weave them together into a new book for the Coker Cemetery Association, I am grateful for that introduction to Max and Minnie. Getting to know them and digging into the past of the Coker Settlement has given me incredible respect for the tough-skinned early residents farming on the outskirts of San Antonio.

Life was hard for those pioneering farmers, and it’s wonderful the Voelcker Farmstead has been spared as testimony of the city’s vanishing rural heritage.

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Coker Cemetery