by Lindsey Grant
A trip to the Grant Family Cemetery in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, a small fishing town in Onslow County, will almost surely route you past what was my grandpa James Stacy Grant’s farmhouse at 101 Ennett Lane. Long since split into two lots and sold to new owners after his death in 1991, the house still sits at the intersection of Old Folkstone Road and Ennett Lane. His house and farmland were but some of the many properties he owned in the area. Though the Grant family retains ownership of almost nothing today, the airstrip that Grandpa and my dad developed together is now a working airport; the beach house out on North Topsail Island that he built and we summered at throughout my childhood still stands; the Grantwood subdivision masterminded by Grandpa’s nephew lives on, as does Whitewood Village, another small community my dad and aunts developed together back in the 90s.
If you want or know to look for these landmarks, you might also pass Grant’s Oyster House, a local institution and point of family pride, run by a distant cousin; Dixon Elementary School on Betty Dixon Road, or the nearby and newer Dixon Middle and High schools, all named for my great grandmother, Bettie. Slightly further afield, you might find yourself on Jim Grant Avenue, the main throughway of Whitewood Village.
Though my memories of the beach house and trips to Topsail Island remain vivid, I was too young to remember much from our visits to Grandpa’s house. There were hot, itchy tractor rides; the seemingly massive, sagging barns full of things I wasn’t allowed to touch; and the house itself—two stories and shadowy, its kitchen the only place I remember seeing sunlight. Back then there was little reason to visit the cemetery. Grandma Grant had been buried many years before, in 1985, when I was three. Even at the age of eight, I have no memory of burying my grandpa there—only the church service, where my dad read James Kavanaugh’s ‘There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves’, a poem I’ve since thought was an apt description of Dad himself.
To get to the cemetery from the farmhouse, carry on down Ennett Lane for less than a mile to where the road veers dramatically left. If you take the curve too fast, which I don’t recommend lest you end up in the roadside ditch, you’ll miss the graveyard altogether. It sits atop a modest rise in deep shade, in plain sight yet somehow hidden. There’s nowhere to park but the grassy berm, and you’d do well to watch for anthills as you make your way across the gully and through the grass to the gloom of the old-growth trees. Bring bug spray, as the mosquitos are thick in summer. The crescendo of cicada song provides the constant (and for me, beloved) soundtrack to this singular version of a family reunion.
Some of the grave markers are so old and faded as to be nearly illegible; others are tiny, for babies and children lost but not forgotten. The oldest gravestones date back to the early 1800s, and I don’t pretend to know how the puzzle of all these distant relatives fits together, though many living members of my family could tell you. Among the assembled are Bettie (Dixon) Grant and her husband, James Benjamin, their son Daniel Lindsey, whose son Lindsey—also a nonfiction author, and a far better known one than myself—was the inspiration for my name. To the far left of the cemetery are my grandparents, J. Stacy (also son to Bettie and James) and his wife, Elizabeth Washburn Grant. Beside them is my father, James Benjamin Grant, and just before him, the freshly dug grave of my cousin, Paul James Doherty.
When we buried Dad in the summer of 2013, six months after his death in early March, I was newly married, and my husband Pat was there with me. Six years later, the family gathered again to inter Paul’s remains, a year and four months after his passing from metastatic prostate cancer, just like his Uncle Jim. This time, Pat held our three-year-old daughter Mira, and my black jumpsuit with its rather giant bow at the middle only just concealed evidence that we had another baby on the way. Similarly, my cousins have since had children of their own, and we collectively herded all of our little ones away from the red ants and a wasp nest rumored to be lurking in a tree near the edge of the property. At the end of the memorial, before we picked our way back to the cars, the youngest among us were the first to say goodbye, tossing tiny fistfuls of earth onto Paul’s urn.
A visit to the Grant Cemetery, no matter how brief or protracted, how wrenching or bittersweet, is always followed by a meal at the Riverview Cafe. Hushpuppies, sweet tea, and local seafood serve as a healing balm for the aching heart, and this particular location brings with it plenty of memories of meals past, as it was a favorite of my grandpa’s when he was living. (A favorite of mine, too, because the Riverview has always fried their seafood in separate oil so the French fries and chicken nuggets never come out tasting like fish.) We famously left my cousin Brian behind after one such family meal. He’d been down on the dock looking at the boats when we drove away. Luckily, plenty of folks at the cafe knew Stacy Grant, and a quick phone call to the farmhouse put everything right.
There’s no obvious connection between where I am making my life in Zürich, Switzerland; where I grew up, in Atlanta, Georgia; and where I’ve long known I’ll be buried, alongside many generations of Grants, at a remote roadside cemetery in North Carolina. With the rise of Ancestry.com and all kinds of genetic testing at our fingertips, it seems almost quaint, wishing to take my place among the dead with something so analog, so tangible, as a headstone. Living as I do in Europe, I am far closer to the distant ancestral origins of my Grant-side family in Scotland and the German Hess contingent on my mother’s side. That far-away North Carolina graveyard, bearing the proud Scottish name of Grant, is a testament to immigration (and emigration) and the long twisting tales they engender. An immigrant and emigrant myself, so very far from where I come from, I often ponder the mercurial nature of belonging and the definition of “home,” wherever that may be.
I never lived in Sneads Ferry, though every summer of my young life included a visit there, and at least a week at the nearby beach house, fishing for crabs with raw chicken, fighting off thumbnail-sized horse flies, and minding the constant warning about rip tides. Taping the windows when there was a storm warning, watching ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ countless times, and riding the mechanical chair lift my grandpa had installed for my grandma so many years before when her strength was failing. At the end of so many trips, we’d fly off in my dad’s little four-seater plane from the still-evolving airstrip, waving to assorted family members growing smaller and smaller below us as we ascended.
The north end of Topsail Island is slowly eroding, the beachfront properties now without any dunes and only sandbags to keep the sea at bay. If and when Grant’s Oyster House, Jim Grant Road, Dixon Elementary, Middle, and High, and the pure-fried wonders of the Riverview Cafe are no more, Dad will still be buried there, and so too will my mom. In the blink of an eye, so will I be, along with my sister and cast of cousins and, eventually, their children, too. It wasn’t ever home to me in the traditional sense, but it’s where my people go at the end.
My Swiss-born daughter and son will hopefully visit me there, parking on the berm, watching for ants, puzzling over their relationship to the humble assemblage of ancestors that—by virtue of marriage–don’t share their name, and—because of immigration—won’t share a common culture, but whose blood runs through their veins and whose time-faded headstones will be a part of the origin stories they’ll tell their own.