Thursday I took a vacation day. I went to Washington, DC for the day.
I hadn’t been down that way since March for Shamrock Fest, and I hadn’t made it to a Nationals game yet this season, and I’d been unable to buy tickets for the National League Division Series between the Nationals and the Cubs (which, all things considered, is fine, as my loyalties are going to be very torn as it is), and it was a good day in my work cycle to go, a day between one set of deadlines just past and another set of deadlines coming up.
Frankly, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. Late September, but very warm and not too hot, like a late June day. The only visual clues that it was September in fact and not June at all were the leaves, some of which were turning, some of which had already fallen, and the shallower angle of the sunlight.
Besides the Nationals game that night, against the Pirates, of whom I’ve long felt a fondness for and, of the demolished classical ballparks, it’s the Pirates’ Forbes Field I’d want to visit the most, I also wanted to visit the Smithsonian — the National Gallery of Art has become quite appealing in my dotage, and I wanted to see the remodeled American History museum — and pay a visit to Congressional Cemetery, quite possibly for the final time, to check a few more family graves and take a few more pictures.
I first visited Congressional Cemetery five years ago. In my genealogical researches, I had discovered that my great-great-grandfather William Gardner was buried there and, after an early Labor Day afternoon Nationals/Cubs game at Nationals Park, I walked from the Navy Yards to the cemetery near RFK Stadium. All I had at the time was a map of the cemetery and the location by the cemetery’s coordinate system and, despite not having any marker, I found the unmarked grave to within about ten feet. I was fairly certain that it was near a tree, but I wasn’t sure. Looking now at the photos I took then, I had it exact, but I didn’t know that then. The following April, another Nationals/Cubs game, this time I was armed with a map I’d drawn myself, marked up with names I’d found in the cemetery’s internment records so I could triangulate a position. William Gardner might not have a headstone, but others did, and I could use the headstones that were there to determine who was where the headstones were not. And so it was that, for the first time in almost certainly decades, a descendant of William Gardner visited his grave and knew that he was there.
Over the years, as my researches advanced, I learned there were others buried there, and I would visit if I had time and reason when I was in DC. William’s sister-in-law (and my great-great-grandmother’s sister) was buried on the other side of the cemetery, near John Philip Sousa. My great-grandfather’s older half-brother, Thomas Hardy, was also buried there, and despite the bitter cold of the day, I stopped to visit his grave (which is also the grave of his wife, daughter, and son-in-law) before Shamrock Fest this year.
Earlier this year, I had a breakthrough. I discovered the married name of William’s oldest daughter Margaret. I knew, from William’s obituary, that he had a daughter living in Washington in 1893, as the funeral was held at her house, but I didn’t know which daughter. There were three possibilities — Margaret, Eleanor (who went by Ella), or Mollie. Ella seemed like the most likely possibility, as I knew that she married and had several children, whereas I had no idea what happened to Margaret and Mollie. For all I knew, Margaret had died sometime after the 1870 Census (the last time she appears as Margaret Gardner) and Mollie after the 1880 Census (the last time she appears as Mollie Gardner).
I looked at William’s obituary one day — I had been talking with my mother and her first cousin after I visited my great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother’s graves at Loudon Park in Baltimore — and something clicked. There was a street address there. It had always been there, it wasn’t a surprise. But I’d never thought to investigate that. I punched it into Google, and suddenly it was as though the world opened up. I had a married name — Margaret Gordon — and I had obituaries with more details. It was all very tenuous at first, but I was soon satisfied that I had found Margaret Gardner. And intriguingly, she was buried very close to her father; only two graves separated them. (Her husband, however, was buried somewhere else.) I had, never knowing it, been at the grave of my great-grandfather’s oldest sister several times.
I decided that, when next I went to Congressional Cemetery, I would visit all the family sites, because there weren’t any more to find. There were some I knew of that I hadn’t looked for, namely Ella and her husband Edward. There were the ones I had learned in the last six months where there. So I downloaded Congressional Cemetery’s list of interments and remade my personal maps (an index card with grids and names). In making those maps, I made another discovery, one tentative at first, and as I researched it, one that became a certainty — I also found Mollie.
I mentioned there were were two graves separating Margaret from her father. One of those sites has a daughter of Ella. Mollie is in the other. In 2013, when I made my first personal map of where William Gardner was buried, I simply didn’t know as much as I know now or how to recognize what I was seeing. Sometimes what seems like insight is really just dumb, blind luck of the pieces falling into place.
My maps made, my plans laid, armed with a cheap selfie stick I could dispose of without guilt, traveling fast and light as though I were hunting Orc, I set out for a day of adventure in the Nation’s Capital. Continue reading “A Vacation Day in the District”