This column appeared June 18, 2011, on the Faith and Values section cover of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Special to The Commercial Appeal

CEDAR GROVE, Tenn. — The name and the dates on the tombstone jumped out at me immediately.

Danial Ross. Born: 1791. Died: 1842.

My grandfather, father, brother and I drove out to this middle-of-nowhere cemetery in rural West Tennessee, about 100 miles northeast of Memphis, on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Leaves crumbled under my sneakers, and the sun bore down on my balding head as I explored this piece of my family’s past.

At first glance, I told myself, this could be any old country cemetery. The ugliness of faded plastic flower arrangements and skinny, branch-exposed trees struck me. I smelled dust and saw weeds and wondered how often anyone ventures out to this seemingly forgotten patch of God’s green Earth.

Yet, I sensed that I was experiencing something significant, that somehow this was sacred ground for me.

W.A. Ross. Dec. 16, 1828-Dec. 25, 1909. He died as he lived, trusting in God.

I was lost in thought when Papa’s voice jarred me back into the moment.

Papa was my dad’s dad. He had white hair, wore overalls and loved fishing and hunting. He worked most of his life as a farmer and carpenter. He always voted for Democrats until Ronald Reagan came along.

Papa fought in World War II and was shot in the face. The famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle happened to be in the operating room the day Papa was wounded and wrote this about him in his book “Brave Men”:

“One soldier had caught a machine-gun bullet right alongside his nose. It had made a small clean hole and gone through his cheek, leaving – as it came out – a larger hole just beneath his ear. It gave me the willies to look at it, yet the doctors said it wasn’t serious at all and would heal with no bad effects.”

I could tell you so much more about Papa.

How he drove a sky-blue “Joy Bus” in the 1970s and brought busloads of black children to a small white Church of Christ.

How he accepted responsibility when he learned in his 80s that he had fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter more than six decades earlier — before he met my grandmother or gave his life to Jesus Christ.

How he built a legacy of faith in his five children, 15 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

But then, this essay isn’t about Papa — at least not entirely.

John A. Ross. Born: 1864. Died: 1955.

I saw the names on the tombstones and wondered who they were and how they died. More important, what kind of lives did they live? Did they worship in the one-room white church that overlooks the cemetery? Did they make the world a better place?

Ross. Ross. Ross. My family’s name is all over Palestine Cemetery. I felt like I belonged here, if only for a moment. I was here for a reason.

I said little as I walked alongside Papa in the cemetery. I listened to him as he told me about the people buried here.

“Who was Daniel Ross?” I asked, curious about this man who died 20 years before the Civil War. (The tombstone spelled his first name wrong, according to county records.)

“He was my great-great-grandfather,” Papa told me. That would make him my great-great-great-great-grandfather.

I was in awe of the roots I found here. But I was only partly here for the past.

I realized that when Papa showed me an empty space he had marked off in the cemetery. This, he explained, is where he would be buried someday beside Grandma. I swallowed the lump in my throat. At the same time, I was oddly comforted.

There was no dread or apprehension in Papa’s voice. He lived a long life — a faithful and honorable life. When his time arrived, he was going to be ready.

Papa, a member of the Huntingdon Church of Christ, celebrated his 93rd birthday March 24, just a few weeks before he died.

Lloyd Lee Ross. Born: 1918. Died: 2011.

We buried Papa in the exact spot that he chose. But praise the Lord, those are just bones under that chunk of rock.

The walk in the cemetery that I described occurred in 2004. I last saw Papa a few months before he died April 17. Frail and bedridden, he made it clear that he wanted to go home — the eternal one promised by his Savior.

“You may not see me again,” he told me the morning I left to drive home to Oklahoma.

“Yes, I will,” I replied.

Bobby Ross Jr., of Oklahoma City, Okla., is managing editor of The Christian Chronicle and a contributor to GetReligion.org.

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