HAMPSTEAD, N.C. — The father had helplessly watched his little girl deteriorate from sickness to death a few days earlier. And now he stands 2,500 miles from home with a borrowed shovel in his hand.
Besides the company of a 9-year-old local boy who happened upon the scene, the solemn father, a Mormon traveling from Utah, was alone as he buried his child in an unfamiliar North Carolina cemetery just off the Atlantic shoreline. There were no pallbearers or relatives to help carry the actual and emotional weight of it all. There were no flowers. And there were no prayers — at least none uttered aloud.
It was just a father in a grassless, windswept cemetery toiling to tear open a fresh wound in the earth as precisely wide as the size of the hole left in his heart.
That was in 1925. And while the father's pain of burying his toddler might have waned over the years until his own death sometime later, the feeling of that ominous afternoon in Hampstead, N.C., only worsened for the dirty, redheaded Mormon boy who momentarily paused work in his family's nearby garden to aid the desperate father in the Mormon church-owned cemetery.
That boy, Marion Barnhill, is now a frail 93-year-old man desperate for answers to a mystery he's only held a handful of clues to for the past 85 years. He said that before he dies, he wishes someone somewhere will recognize the following story from their relatively recent family history. He hopes they'll come forth with the identity of the unidentified girl, who may have siblings still alive today.
Rewind 85 years
At his mother's request that spring morning in 1925, Barnhill went to work in the family garden, which shared a property line with the graveyard.
"That's when I saw them drive up the dirt road into the cemetery," Barnhill said. "I don't 'member the color, but I know it was a four-door (car)."
The father stepped out of his vehicle, approached the boy and asked for a shovel. While young Barnhill hustled to the barn and back, the man unloaded a smallish, "about 36-inch-long" casket from the backseat of his car.
The man worked in mostly silence, but a few details from their spotty conversation burned into Barnhill's memory.
The father said he and his wife were traveling from Utah eastward through the South when their daughter fell ill and died before they could get medical attention. He said he purchased the child's casket from a morgue 15 miles away in the city of Wilmington and that someone at the morgue — probably after discovering the couple was Mormon — gave the father directions to the Hampstead LDS Cemetery, a small, once-privately owned graveyard close to the coastline that had been donated to the church for its members' use.
Perhaps too stricken with grief, or too upset for having to bury her baby so far from home, the man's wife, the little girl's mother, stayed in the car and watched the unsophisticated interment from a distance.
"She never got out," Barnhill remembered. "Not once."
Was she sick, perhaps too weak to get out after catching her child's contagious disease while caring so intimately for her?
Planting a memory
Although the out-of-town strangers appear to have acted rashly — they didn't get permission for, or officially record, the burial plot; they didn't buy a headstone or a common granite grave marker — the couple acted with apparent tenderness and conceivably with all the sentiment they could afford.
After tolerating the earth swallowing his angel, and while still wearing his suit and tie, the father carefully hand-packed the last of the sandy soil on the unmarked grave and started digging another hole. In that little grave, however, he buried new life: a five-foot-high cedar sapling.
He took a coin from his pocket and turned to the boy.
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