As I approached the small gravestone,
lying almost even with the grass around it, my legs began to weaken. Before I
knew it I was on my knees, tears streaming down my cheeks, as I read the
letters I’d never been able to read before.
The last time
I’d seen my little sister’s gravestone I was probably only three or four, too
young to read the letters. This was at least 67 years ago. I had no idea why my
parents took me to the cemetery almost every Sunday afternoon. I thought it was
something everyone did. I wasn’t quite three when my brother Robbie was born.
They must have brought him some as a baby. All I know for sure is that we never
went to the cemetery after we moved to Magnolia Drive, and that was right after
I turned five. Mom probably couldn’t handle it anymore, I suppose.
fact Mom never mentioned a word about Roberta Lee. Dad told us when I was about
eight years old, I believe. We’d just watched an episode of the old show Wagon
Train. In this episode a newborn baby had died.
so sad that the baby died,” I remember saying to Dad.
nodded and took Robbie and me aside. I think Mom left the room to put our baby
brother to bed. “We had a baby that died like that,” he said. “She was born too
soon and only lived for a couple of hours. We named her Roberta Lee.”
soon as he said this, I knew what those Sunday afternoon visits to the cemetery
had been for. Robbie was too young to
understand, but it all made sense to me. I had a little sister who died. By
this time I had a second brother, baby Danny. So I grew up with two brothers,
but I always wondered what it would be like to have a sister.
knowledge that I did have a sister somewhere—maybe in heaven—left a huge
impression in my heart. And the name Roberta Lee meant a lot, for Dad’s first
name was Robert, and Mom’s middle name was Lee. I began to include my sister in
my childhood bedtime prayers: “God bless Mama and Daddy, Robbie and Danny, and
Roberta Lee, wherever she may be.” Neither of my parents ever commented on how
I worded my prayer for her.
grew older, another memory was added to the story, at least in my own mind. On
February 10, 1954, I was within a week of turning nineteen months old. People
say this is too young to have a memory, but I know I do remember an event the
night my sister was born.
was sitting on a brown area rug on the hardwood floor of the rental house we
lived in until I was five. There is a cup of cold water or juice in my hands.
Across the room I hear my father and my mother’s mother, Nanny, talking in anxious,
upset voices. My mother is not in the house. Somehow I know that she would be
there with Nanny, unless something was very wrong.
most distinct part of the memory is the feeling of cold liquid running down my
chest when I spill the cup as I try to drink from it. That is another hint that
tells me I am under two years old. My adult mind has now reasoned that I picked
up on the tension in the room, and that’s why I spilled that cup. And I can
think of no other reason for all those things to be happening—except the birth
of Roberta Lee. Mama wasn’t home because she was at the hospital in premature
labor, and that’s why Daddy and Nanny were upset.
brothers had no memories like this. Robbie was born just over a year later in
1955, and Danny came along in 1958.
another strange twist in the story, though. When our father died, in August
2010, I was in Montana and my brother Robert (no longer Robbie) was the one who
saw Dad the day before he died.
soon as Robert had come into his room at the nursing home, Dad had told him
this story. “I had the most wonderful day yesterday. I spent it with my
Dad, Frances is in Montana, not here.”
my other daughter,” said Dad. “She has such beautiful eyes.”
Robert’s visit that morning with Dad, he had to go to work. Dad died a couple
of hours later.
he called to tell me about Dad’s passing, one of Robert’s first questions was,
“Did our parents have a baby girl between you and me who died?”
I said. “Dad told us about her when I was around eight, You would have been
only five, so you don’t remember. And of course, if they took you to the
cemetery when I was three, you were just a baby.”
event left me wondering that somehow as he approached death, Dad had crossed
over just far enough the day before he died, to see the daughter he’d never
known on earth but would know in heaven. And the more I wondered, the more I
wanted to go find that little grave and see it again.
website FindaGrave.com told me she was buried in Arlington Memorial Cemetery in
El Dorado, Arkansas. This was the town we’d lived in until I was eleven. There
was a photo of the gravestone, and this was the first time I found out exactly
when she was born.
is a long way from Montana, so I wondered if I’d ever get back there. But in
February 2024, we were visiting my cousin in Jefferson, Texas. When I
discovered El Dorado was only three hours’ drive away, I convinced my husband
to take a day trip to my birthplace.
first thing we did was find the cemetery, but it was huge. Since we had no idea
which section to look in, it would take all day and maybe more to find one
small grave. After wandering and searching on foot for about half an hour, we
finally found a phone number on a sign at one of the cemetery entrances. My
husband Paul called the number, and a woman answered. He explained our
situation, and she told him the information office was right across the road
from where we were sitting in our rental car.
great relief, we drove to the office and showed her the photo I’d printed from
the FindaGrave.com website. I think she recognized the name of the person who
had posted the picture. It didn’t take her long to locate the gravesite, and
she printed a map for us.
take you there,” she said.
that’s very kind,” said Paul.
problem,” she replied. “I do this often.”
we followed her car as she drove back through the cemetery gate. We hadn’t gone
far when she stopped and pointed to a corner lot. It had only a couple of
gravestones, and no tall headstones like most of the rest of the graves in the
cemetery. Fuzzy childhood memories of trips to the cemetery fell into place:
the grave was near one of the cemetery lanes, and there was a woodland several
yards to the left. She drove away, as we walked toward the place my heart so
desired to see.
That’s when I
fell on my knees. I had no words, just tears of joy that I’d found my little
sister at last. There was grief, too, for the years that she had missed. We
were there on February 5, 2024—just five days short of what would have been her
seventieth birthday. An entire life missed. Yet as I sat on the damp ground, I
couldn’t help but think perhaps she was the lucky one. She’d gone straight to
heaven, while I had endured seventy-one years of the trials and heartbreaks of
life here on earth. Oh, there had been joys, too. But right at that point my
joy and pain all merged as I sat and talked to my sister.
gently told me, “Take all the time you need,” and went to the car.
I looked at the stone and ran my hands over it, I was amazed that it still
seemed new. The letters and numbers were still sharp and deeply cut. There were
no signs of weathering. Running my fingers on the polished granite around the
name section, an eerie sensation came over me. My brothers and I had chosen the
same shade of pink and grey granite when we picked our parents’ headstone for
their grave in Rochester, Illinois.
told my sister about her younger brothers. As I told her the color of
everyone’s eyes in the family I wondered what color her “beautiful eyes” were.
looking forward to finally meeting you,” I said, as the tears kept cascading
down. “I’ve wondered my whole life what you would be like. Someday I will know.”
(Even as I write this, the tears are falling again.)
a quavering voice, I tried to sing some favorite songs to her. The only one I
could get all the way through was Jesus Loves Me. I forgot to tell her that this was one of our
mother’s favorite songs when she was in her eighties, had Alzheimer’s, and was
approaching death. For some reason I talked more about our father, for he was
the one who had told me about her. I know the two of them are together in
heaven forever, and now Mom has joined them.
tears ebbed and I rejoined Paul in the rental car. We drove around my old
hometown. Many things had changed, but some hadn’t. I recognized the school
where I had attended first through fifth grade, and started sixth, before my
dad’s work forced us to move to Illinois. We drove around my old neighborhood,
and it was good to see that almost all the houses still looked loved and cared
for. The magnolia trees on Magnolia Drive were fifty feet taller than I
remembered. But everything else looked smaller than I remembered. Our former
house looked beautiful, as the owners had bricked the front. I could still see
the rectangular wrought iron Mom had chosen for the front porch; she wanted
nothing to do with curls and leaf patterns.
even found the rental house where I had spilled that drink on myself almost
seventy years ago. It looked well cared for, too. And down the hill there were
the railroad tracks that Dad liked to walk me to. Sometimes we even saw trains
going by. Dad loved trains.
visit to El Dorado ended with a late picnic lunch in a park near the rental
house. Perhaps it was the park I remembered walking to with Mama on sunny days
when Daddy was at work.
Bible verse came to my mind, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace…for my
eyes have seen…” The verse is telling about a priest seeing baby Jesus, as God
had promised he would before he died. I guess I was feeling that I can die in
peace now, too, for I have seen with my own adult eyes the place where some
treasured childhood memories dwell, of the sister I hope to get to know in