Garrett’s side of the family calls it the “Kerken en Zerken Tour”, Dutch words for churches and graves. What could be more exciting than that?! Especially for a quartet of teenagers? In spite of that apparent disconnect we set out with precisely that combination this past weekend. Four of my nieces and nephews, ranging in age from 12 to 19, hopped in a rented minivan along with my sister, Michelle. We traveled into my dad’s home territory of Haverhill, Massachusetts. While tracking the significant places related to our ancestors we worshiped in a church that nurtured their faith generations earlier. We hiked through hot cemeteries looking for elusive gravestones. We took pictures of ourselves in front of strangers’ homes (that once belonged to our kinfolk) while the current owners peered anxiously out their own front window!
On this trip we got to spend a little extra time in the Exeter Cemetery because the doors to my rented minivan spontaneously locked once we all piled out to look for the Chapman marker. After the thrill (maybe not so much on the part of the teenagers) of finding the stone and taking the obligatory photographs, we discovered we were locked out. Fortunately my cousin Lauren and her husband Randy were with us and they graciously offered to pack the four kids into their rented a car and return them to the hotel room. Since the two nephews were already curled up in the fetal position in the shade, there was no greater gift they could have offered to us. As their overloaded car headed out of the cemetery gates and back toward Haverhill, Michelle and I found two accommodating tombstones and settled in for an indefinite period of time. We were waiting for a locksmith to arrive because of a 1-800 call I had placed to the rental agency. I had wisely opted for the additional expenditure of $3.99 per day that assured quick response in case of roadside emergencies. So no worries!
When I talked to the sweet young woman on the other end of the phone she pinned down a locksmith who would be coming from Skip’s Radiator and Automotive. We were half an hour in at this point and she estimated that it would be 45 minutes before they arrived. So be it. We were still wearing the church clothes that we had donned that morning when we attended worship in my father’s home sanctuary in Haverhill. We figured the trip to the Exeter town cemetery would be quick so changing out of dresses was unnecessary. Michelle and I had plenty of time to voice our regret for that decision as we sat on the ground that was home to several species of insects. We leaned against tombstones and prayed for a rapid rescue in the heat and humidity of a Sunday afternoon.
We were heartened by how many people stopped by to offer some form of kindness to us. My van was in the middle of one of the lanes that snake through the cemetery because I expected our time there to be brief. Now it was blocking traffic for the occasional mourner who drove in. A woman rolled down her window and told us we would need to move our car. We explained our predicament. She immediately offered to get us some water and extended her cell phone to us. We thanked her and told her that help was on the way. Another guy pulled up in a truck and was sympathetic, learning of our plight. If people didn’t ask what we were doing we made a point of telling them since we appeared to be taking a leisurely and rather irreverent break in a sacred burial ground. One young man with a backpack strapped onto his body emerged from the nearby woods and hiked his way across the green lawn as if it were a mountain range. There was a groundskeeper who was distinctly disinterested in our situation but mowed rigorously, keeping the Exeter Cemetery in fine condition. One guy pulled up to water the plants at his family tombstone. When he understood our situation he suggested we consider calling the local police department. “They often help people who are locked out of vehicles.” he stated in a wonderful Boston brogue. Since help was on the way we weren’t concerned but decided to write down the number just in case. He told us that he was raised by a single mother. He and his three brothers knew intimately the workings of the local police department from their earlier years! It turned out that his tip would be most useful to us.
More than one hour after our initial appeal for help to the emergency hotline, we received a call from the guy who had drawn the short straw and had to rescue us on a Sunday afternoon. He asked for further clarification about the whereabouts of our cemetery. He wasn’t finding it. His confusion (and the fact that his caller ID came from Nebraska) led me to ask if he understood that it was indeed Exeter, New Hampshire where we had been waiting. With an astonished laugh he asked, “You’re in New Hampshire?“ “Yes”, I replied weakly. “Where are you?” With a laugh that seemed less humorous to me than to him, he said he was in Exeter, Nebraska. Alphabetically Nebraska precedes New Hampshire so my spunky helper at the rental agency must have grabbed the first Exeter that she could find and led some poor guy from Skip’s Automotive on a wild goose chase. I asked him how long he thought it would be before he could reach us. He laughed again, now off the hook for the rescue mission. We mutually decided I should call our car company back to find a savior a little closer to our location.
At this point Michelle and I knew we needed to do two things. We dug out the number and called the local police department. We stressed that we were afraid we would get locked into the cemetery if someone didn’t come soon as the gates are locked at dusk. The police department, which our helpful new friend knew so well, was organized. They took our address, crisis details and promised to send someone out. Worrying that even a skilled police officer might not be able to coerce their way into a 2018 locked vehicle we called our 1-800 operator back. I was less pleasant than I had been on the first call. She apologized and promised to find a repair person from New Hampshire! Before I even finished that conversation, a police cruiser arrived and a helpful officer begin to take down the details. It was only at this point that the groundskeeper showed any interest in us. He whipped over in his lawn mower and fawned all over our rescuer. Funny how two sweaty women lingering in church attire had gone totally unnoticed by this elderly gentleman. The police officer set to work with a wedge and an inflatable device that made me think of angioplasty. With the equivalent of a bent metal hanger he popped us into our car in no time. It was only when we drove out the gates of the Exeter Cemetery, knowing that we wouldn’t be locked in, that we called the car rental agency. We cancelled whatever secondary effort they had put into place.
Having spent 2 1/2 hours in that one cemetery in addition to others on earlier “Kerken en Zerken Tours”, my phone GPS now identifies any nearby burial grounds when giving me directions. I am known in cyberspace as someone who goes gaga for graveyards. I could certainly be known for much worse! My sister and I were able to bond with my great grandparents, Thomas and Maria Chapman, for a couple of hours in a small town just over the Massachusetts border where my father grew up. We told the police officer that we were visiting for the first time to trace our ancestral roots. We thanked him for showing such a caring side to this community that is part of our heritage. God sends us saviors in many different forms. What an interesting assortment of helpers we encountered in one lone cemetery. They offered us the Biblical cup of cold water, the opportunity to phone a friend or summon the police. Our needs were fully met. I’m thinking I need to argue for a refund on my rapid-response emergency assistance surcharge of $3.99 per day. I might just make that a donation to the fine servants at the Exeter Police Department in New Hampshire, not Nebraska! And the kids? We took them out for ice cream that evening and all was forgiven!