The best walks through cemeteries are the aimless ones, wandering the rows out of pure curiosity. Taking a random right here or an arbitrary left there can lead to intriguing discoveries that more than once have left me wondering whether I was being reeled in by a decedent hungry for a visitor.
During my most recent trip to Dale County, Alabama, I paid a visit to Union Cemetery, also known as the City Cemetery, in Ozark. I knew some of my Sansbury ancestors were buried there and I wanted to photograph their gravestones. I had last visited probably 20 years earlier, but had no real recollection of where to find them.
I had barely stepped foot in the cemetery when I found myself looking at the graves of James Carroll and his wife, Pennie, my 3X great grandparents on a different line! My old car (RIP) is clearly visible in my photo of this Carroll plot I wasn’t looking for.
Next I found those Sansburys I WAS looking for, and then, near them, my Matthewses. But this story isn’t about them.
Clearly this had not been a well-planned visit to this cemetery or I might have known how many ancestors I would find there. I felt a little euphoric, which may sound highly relatable to fellow genealogists and a little creepy to some other readers.
I had a little more time on my hands, so the wandering began. I walked the perimeter of the cemetery until I reached an adjacent one called Morning View Cemetery. I was tempted to explore it as well, but the hot sun had risen high in the sky. I decided to make my way back. Rather than returning the way I’d come, I headed toward my car on a somewhat diagonal route.
About halfway back, I felt a little tug, as if someone had whispered “Hey! Over here!” which gently led me away from my path. Several yards to my left, I noticed the name “Byrd” on a grave marker along the fence line. As my readers may recall, this was my paternal grandmother’s maiden name and my Byrd family was a huge one. However, I knew my direct Byrd ancestors were not in this cemetery, so I wasn’t expecting to find anyone with a familiar name. Still, I drew closer.
I saw a flat stone engraved with “Walter Franklin Byrd” and couldn’t quite place the name. He was definitely not in my grandmother’s immediate Byrd family. Then I read his wife’s stone: “Sallie Mae Byrd.”
I started to laugh, which I realize may sound a little indecorous given the setting. But it was the laugh of someone appreciating a serendipitous moment.
I knew exactly who she was! I didn’t know her as a Byrd; to me, she was a Brown. And she wasn’t my grandmother’s relative at all, she was my grandfather’s aunt!
She died when I was about 4 years old, so I have no memories of her.4 I don’t know whether I ever met her, although there’s a decent chance I did. Although I don’t recall any particular stories, I remember often hearing both of my grandparents refer to “Aunt Sallie Mae.”
Sallie Mae was the youngest child of Stephen Commodore Decatur Brown and his wife Selathia Mozetta Townsend “Townie” Matthews.6 My great-grandmother, Myrtle “Mertie” Brown, was nearly 15 years old when her baby sister Sallie Mae was born in 1902.7
A few newspaper articles reveal some key moments in her life. Sallie Mae received her teaching certificate in 1923—along with her sister-in-law Verna Brown—and taught second grade in Daleville.9
Just a few short months later, she married Walter Byrd.10
Sadly, Walter died in 1944 at age 46.11
No children were mentioned in Walter’s obituary and to my knowledge, Sallie Mae had none. But she took an interest in those close to her. When my great-grandmother Mertie Brown Sansbury died in 1952, her three children had young children of their own. One of my cousins described Aunt Sallie Mae as “an absolute angel.”12
“Having missed out on knowing our maternal grandmother, she stepped into that role for us. When we found ourselves in need, she was there,” this cousin wrote. “She visited often, especially at Christmas. We loved her dearly.”13
Another relative, who descends from one of Sallie Mae and Mertie’s brothers, provided a copy of Aunt Sallie Mae’s will, which had been filed among his grandfather’s papers. Although I do not know whether this was the final such document, it showed she had made provisions for her “beloved” Sansbury niece and nephews at the time.14
Because she has no descendants, it’s very likely she gets few visitors. Sure, someone came in 2005 and photographed her headstone for her Find A Grave memorial page, but that’s not the same as a visit from family. I like to think she called me over that day in the cemetery so she could meet her great-great niece. I spent a few minutes chatting with her before I went on my way. Next time I’m there, I will make a point to drop by.
My cousin with fond memories of Aunt Sallie Mae sent several pictures of her at different ages. I love the photo of her in a white sailor dress, smiling as she leans against a fence under a tree on a sunny day. I can easily imagine her laughing and calling out to a wandering passerby, “Hey! Over here!”
Have you been reeled in by a relative at a cemetery? Please tell me your story in the comments!
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