Time has passed, but their presence still remains


It is likely that Memorial Day will find me at the smallest cemetery I have ever known.

It is small because only five bodies were placed there, all babies.

But that little fenced-in plot is filled with history, pathos and tears.

The plot is 50 easy paces northeast from the front door of the historic Borst Home, on the banks of the Chehalis River, and the bodies were Borst children who never made it beyond infancy. The children were placed there in the 1860s and early '70s, when no doctors were nearby, all births were at home with, at best, a neighbor woman serving as midwife, sterilization was almost non-existent, childhood diseases were undeterred, and infant mortality was at a tearfully high rate.

The irony is that today, across the river and a mile away, as the crow flies, is a large, modern medical facility, and infant mortality in this area is mostly just a sad memory.

The little ones were not taken to a cemetery because there wasn't one nearby. They were put into the front yard, so that the parents, Mary and Joseph Borst, could visit them and pretty up their little mounds with wildflowers.

Certainly Joseph made the caskets and dug the graves. It wouldn't have taken much wood, and the holes in the ground didn't have to be very big. One by one, a few years apart, the bodies were placed in their graves, tragedy after tragedy, until more than half of their children were there. 

As head of the family, Joseph probably gave the prayer, and Mary, well versed in the Bible, recited scripture:

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters… ." Five times. But the "still waters" for the Borst babies were the not-so-still waters of the Chehalis River, where their father ran a ferry service, helping travelers cross the river.

Little crosses there read:

Clara Borst (1870-1870)

Salucius Borst (1861-1863)

Menetta Borst (1871-1871)

Calista Borst (1864-1865)

Baby Borst (1868-1868)

These little bones remained there through the rest of the century, but when Mountain View Cemetery was established, the civic-minded Mary had them moved there. They are now just to the right of the main entrance.

I like to visit the Borst place when no one else is around, so that I can send myself back into the 19th century, mentally removing what wasn't there then (such as the school house and arboretum). I can feel the presence of Mary and Joseph as they go about their chores, with the children at play in and around the house, built in 1864.

I picture Joseph coming out the front door after supper on a summer evening. There he lights his pipe, Mary having asked him not to smoke in the house. Puffing to keep it lit, he strolls those 50 paces to the little cemetery, a nightly routine, to stand there and muse until the glow of his tobacco dies too.

How he wishes all five of those little ones had lived long enough to play in his huge barn, which stood where a metal storage shed stands in 2005. It was big enough inside to turn a wagon and team of horses around. Little Salucius could have helped his big brother, Harbin, with the barn chores. Five or six years later, maybe Baby Borst would join in. You can't have too many sons on a farm.

Or I can see Mary, on a rainy winter day, drying her hands on her apron and sighing while looking out one of the living room windows, which have a good view of the plot. She looks at Clara's cross. After three of the Borst children had died, Mary sought some surcease of sorrow by adopting a baby. They named her Clara, maybe influenced by Clara Barton, who had become well known as an angel of mercy in the recently completed Civil War. Maybe their baby would have become a nurse, like that other Clara. But, alas, she too died young and lies with the others.

Then there are Minetta and Calista. What help they would have been with the thousands of tasks the farm wife has, and how their little voices would have brought cheer to the gloom of the new house.

Certainly, the family garden, eight acres of it, was going to need a lot of weeding next summer, and water carried up from the river.

Oh, those pains of birth. And now all for naught, without those little ones to rock to sleep, to read to, and to coach them into becoming fine young women..

Both Joseph and Mary probably got some solace from the 19th century poet, James Russell Lowell, who wrote about the grief he felt after the death of his 1-year-old daughter. Here is only the first of his five stanzas, in his poem called "She Came and Went":

"As a twig trembles, which a bird

Lights on to sing, then leaves unbent,

So is my memory thrilled and stirred;

I only know she came and went."

The twig trembled five times for Mary and Joseph Borst. Five little birds that came and went.

Gordon Aadland, Centralia, is a longtime Centralia College faculty member and publicist.