Branches reach away from trunk of family tree, but nourishment from common roots remains

February 16, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

IT WAS A HOT JULY afternoon in 1991, the kind of day Noel Coward described in his ditty "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," when I went to hunt for my deceased relatives in Baltimore Cemetery.

It was searing at the far eastern end of North Avenue. Hot gusts of air rolled in from Sinclair Lane.

Staff members at Baltimore Cemetery were efficient and helpful. They extracted the location of my family's lot from little cards housed in long drawers. They provided a suggested walking route and sent me on my way.

I passed the impressive granite and limestone graves of 19th-century German brewers and musicians, but couldn't find my great-grandfather, William Stewart, Area J, Lot 187.

I walked back to the big, stone, entrance castle, looked helpless, and got one of the staff to escort me to the resting place of great-grandpop, the father of Lily Rose and Cora, the sisters so often mentioned in this column. The cemetery people escorted me to a grassy square. No gravestones. Nothing but browning July grass.

I thanked the staff and went home. My mother, who was then living, said that the graves once had stone markers.

"Of course," she chided me, "Don't you know one of the daughters of the man buried there married a tombstone maker?" She then added, "There were stones there when I was a child, but nothing lasts forever. Not even stone." Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, given how much things can change over the years. After all, the first person buried in the same area as my great-grandpop was laid to rest in 1851, and no one else had been laid to rest in that area since he died in 1916. Maybe the stone markers just couldn't hold up to Baltimore's pollution.

About two years later, I returned to the cemetery, this time on a fine day that made this end of Northeast Baltimore look perfect. And there, on the family grave, was a fresh new stone marking the long-lost members of the Stewart family.

It was a mystery. Who paid to have a new stone set in place? I quizzed the likely suspects in the family. Nobody 'fessed up.

It didn't take long before I had an answer. It was a cousin I never knew existed, a representative from a branch of the family descended from the same main trunk of the Stewart tree.

These people hadn't lived in Baltimore since the 1920s, not long after one graduated from Polytechnic Institute, went on to Cornell and sought his fortune in Manhattan. They found me -- and the unmarked grave they so graciously restored -- as part of their research into the family's history.

Now, every time I see a story on family reunions, or some dedicated researcher hunched over a microfilm machine at the Maryland Archives or the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I am reminded of the new gravestone in Baltimore Cemetery.

It was in the winter that I met Sayre Schwarztrauber and his wife, who was born Beryl Stewart, a woman the genealogists would call my collateral cousin.

I didn't quite know what to expect. After all, my end of the family were staunch Baltimoreans. They didn't move around.

When they came from Edinburgh in 1760, they settled in Oldtown and stayed there until about 1885, when they made a bold move and took off for a house in the 1800 block of North Broadway, not far away, as it turns out, from the cemetery where they now rest.

In 1915, they moved to Guilford Avenue, where my father still resides. So, in nearly 240 years, the Stewarts and their mates have lived in but three Baltimore zip codes.

When Cousin Beryl walked through the front door, she took off her coat and asked two questions. Did we have sauerkraut with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner? And did we put up Christmas gardens?

Both of these traditions she associated with Baltimore because the Stewarts in her family, the ones who settled in the New York metropolitan area, held onto these quaint practices.

I assured her that all true Stewarts devour sauerkraut. I told her that some of the more industrious ones have been known to cure their own in heavy stoneware crocks.

Then I asked Sayre and Beryl if they would like to visit my Christmas garden, which has grown fat and too big to take down every year. If I were so industrious as to assemble a village and train from scratch each December, then rip it apart in February, I'd make my own sauerkraut too from fresh cabbage.

We had a cozy visit, and as the long-lost cousins were leaving Baltimore, I presented Beryl with a stoneware crock to take back to her home on Cape Cod, just in case she gets the urge for sauerkraut.

A few days later the mail brought a fruitcake preserved in a wrapping of thin cotton. And like the soured cabbage and the little village, it was very much like the ones her collateral cousins once baked.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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