Surnames: BJORBACK, FOSLER, GARBER, HAGEMAN, IMIG, MEINBERG, ROCKER
Landmarks: GREENWOOD CEMETERY
SEWARD CIVIC CENTER
Thursday, August 9, 2001, mid-afternoon
We fanned out in the area surrounding the graves of our Imig ancestors in Greenwood Cemetery, and I spent the next two hours happily locating and photographing the mostly German gravestones whose names I recognized from my family research.
Alice in Greenwood
Brian In Greenwood
Most touching of all were the many graves of infants and young children, always placed protectively near their parents and grandparents. The one that moved me the most was a tiny stone with a lamb lying along the top, the small grave of an unknown Imig infant. The writing on the stone was too mossy and worn to be readable except for the name "Friedrich" on the upper right.
Unknown Imig Baby Grave
By now the temperature had climbed into the mid-80s, and a cold drink was starting to sound really good. Besides, it was already 2:30, and we needed to call our Hageman cousin LaVerne to arrange getting together with her soon.
LaVerne Fosler Garber Bjorback, the daughter of our grandmother Alice Hageman's only sister, Grace Hageman FOSLER, had worked valiantly to keep our burgeoning HAGEMAN family together over the years, as it spread farther and farther across America and the world. Having survived the passing of her two husbands, Elmer GARBER and John BJORBACK, she now lived alone in a Seward retirement home.
Reluctantly, Brian and I left the resting ground of our ancestors and countless relatives and walked down the central driveway and out of the Greenwood Cemetery gate. Retracing our steps the few short blocks to the Civic Center, we stopped at a convenience store, then parked in the shade.
This time I found the front office in the Civic Center unlocked and staffed by a very friendly woman. She provided me with a map of Seward (finally!) published by a local bank, more colored visitor brochures, and a list of phone numbers for officers of the Seward Genealogical Society. I then rejoined my brother in the car to enjoy a cold bottle of iced tea with lemon and to plan the rest of the day. After a couple of long, refreshing swigs, I got out my cell phone to call LaVerne.
"Just a minute," a young man's voice answered, and I felt an ominous thud in my heart as the phone changed hands with muffled noises.
In the eternity of a moment, I recalled my lively phone conversation with LaVerne in late April. We had not spoken in years, and had much to share. She was my mother's favorite cousin, and they had always stayed in touch through letters. After my mother passed on, my father wrote to LaVerne until he, too, departed. Then my brother took up the torch. "I always want to keep in touch with Aunt Alice's family," she wrote.
Both avid genealogists, LaVerne and I hungrily exchanged as much family news, questions, and insights as we could squeeze into an hour. We discussed our connection to Daniel BOONE's sister Sarah, our WALLICK and JOHNSON great-grandparents, and our HEGEMAN ancestors who had arrived in 1652 from the Netherlands to help found the wild Dutch settlement that would one day become New York City.
LaVerne sounded very sharp, and spoke of turning 91 that weekend with pride and amazement. I promised to try to come visit her with my brother Brian in May or June. She spoke excitedly about us meeting her son Jim and his "very nice" girlfriend Debbie, if they could make the two-hour drive from Kansas. She was sure her sister Eleanor, her only surviving sibling whom she saw every day, would also want to meet us.
On July 26th when I called her again, I held my breath while the phone rang, knowing full well that at 91 you cannot take anything for granted. I was relieved when she answered the phone, and I apologized for not having made it to Nebraska yet. I told her that we had plane tickets to visit Seward August 8th through 11th. Although she seemed glad to hear we were finally coming, I noticed a strain in her voice I hadn't heard in April. She couldn't talk long and mentioned that she was in assisted living now and couldn't see or get around well at all. "Please don't worry about entertaining us," I insisted, "We just want to see you!"
While I now sat in the car and waited with trepidation for someone on the other end of the line to talk to me, I took a deep breath and tried my best to relax as I exhaled. "This is Debbie," a hesitant woman's voice finally said.
Debbie, I repeated to myself, recognizing Jim's girlfriend's name. Fearing the worst, but trying to remain optimistic, I replied, "This is Alice Imig Stipak, LaVerne's cousin. I wanted to speak with her, please."
"LaVerne passed away Monday night," she said slowly. The words stabbed my heart. "Are you the cousins from California?"
Desperately, I reached for Brian with my eyes. "Yes, that's right," I managed, "Brian and I flew in last night." LaVerne passed away, I whispered urgently to my brother, and his face fell in dismayed shock. LaVerne is really gone... We missed her by just three days!
"We've been expecting you. We didn't know how to get hold of you. We didn't want you to just walk into this without any warning."
"We would have come anyway," I assured her, "But we really hoped to see her."
"The funeral is at 10:00 tomorrow morning," she said.
"Do you suppose it would be all right if Brian and I come? I'm afraid we didn't bring any good clothes..."
"Nobody's going to care what you wear, they will just be happy to have you there."
Numb, I listened while she directed us to the motel where LaVerne's son Jim, his children, and she were staying. I was to try to get a room there and find them that night. After I hung up, Brian and I held each other's eyes in disbelief. We agreed that we'd better call Aunt Joyce right away, to give our branch of the family the sad news.
Just as we finished our phone call with our aunt in southern California, a car pulled up next to us. Perplexed by a familiar face appearing out of nowhere, I blinked my eyes, then exclaimed with lifting spirits, "It's Della!" How did she find us, I wondered, and jumped out of the passenger side to run around and greet her.
"I didn't feel right about just leaving you like that," Della announced. "Then my friend saw you and said, 'Oh, look, there are those people you were talking to before,' and I drove over to invite you to my house." Afraid that she would notice our crestfallen mood and misunderstand, I explained that we had just learned that the main cousin we had planned to visit in Seward had passed away suddenly.
Brian and I readily accepted her gracious invitation. We were eager to have the chance to spend more time with Della (Rocker) MEINBERG, a daughter of our grandfather's first cousin, Marie IMIG. "Can you follow me?" she asked, and both cars headed north.
Once at Della's cheerful, neat-as-a-pin apartment, she bid us sit on her couch. As I struggled to switch gears from the shock of our Hageman cousin LaVerne's sudden passing to the joy of visiting with our Imig cousin Della, she piped up, "Now, wait a minute, who was it you said passed away?" As soon as I said LaVerne's name, she exclaimed, "Why, LaVerne and I were good friends!"
LaVerne, we learned to our great surprise, had lived just down the hall from Della until a few weeks ago when she had to move to the greater care wing of the facility. "I played bingo with her Monday morning, and as we walked back she wasn't feeling well and said, 'I have to sit down and rest.' She fell down in the hall and they came with an ambulance and took her to the hospital, where she died that night."
As what Della was telling us sank in, I said softly, "I almost feel like LaVerne somehow guided us to meet each other." Some of our Hageman cousins, I thought, are friends with our Imig cousins, two groups I had expected to be totally separate. I tried in vain to comprehend the compounding coincidences, and the interweaving fabric of the families living in the Seward community.
"She said she had cousins from California who were coming to visit, and she was worried about how she was going to entertain them." Dear LaVerne, I thought guiltily, I told her she didn't have to do that.
As Della went to the kitchen to get us something to drink, I turned to my likewise stunned brother and asked, "Can you believe all this?!"
[Coming next: Return to Seward Diary, August 2001: "Faces from the Past"]
Alice Imig Stipak, a grateful granddaughter of Seward