by Winona Post Editor-in-chief Sarah Squires
I got married on September 10, 2011. 9-10-11 was a poetic day, when Kong and I got married in Kieselhorst Slough on a little sandbar on the river, a day to celebrate forever. But after he died in 2014, it became a more difficult day on the calendar for me. How does one mark such an occasion? Some years, I made special plans, others I didn’t know how I’d feel until the day broke. This year, I had something special to do on such an emotional day. This year, I had a grave marker at Woodlawn to visit.
See, Kong was cremated, his remains are not at Woodlawn. But four years ago his mom and I chose a spot there, up against the woodland bluffs, near a grove of trees. We wanted a place to mark his life that we could visit, and until this year, it was just a grassy spot nestled against the forest. A few months ago, his grave marker was installed, and I decided that on September 10, 2019, I would go see it for the first time. I’d spend a few minutes talking to him, talking to the trees. Sprinkle a bit of catnip in the forest. (He was a cat lover, and I’d like to think there’s at least a few adventurous kitties in the neighborhood who might come to visit from time to time.)
So on Tuesday night, I loaded up some catnip and headed to Woodlawn to celebrate. I have visited Woodlawn many times, but nearly all of them were with my friend Lexi. Her childhood friend, Jake Edstrom, is there, and she started bringing me to visit him before I ever worked at the Post or fell in love with the Edstrom family. These days, when we visit, we also remember John Edstrom; John and Jake’s grave markers are engraved with some of the most profound poetry I’ve ever read, and our trips have always been steeped in reflection and significance.
The thing is, Lexi always knew where she was going.
As I drove into the cemetery on Tuesday night, it occurred to me that it had been four years since I’d been to Kong’s plot. What I remembered was that it was nestled against the woods ... in a newer part of the cemetery. But as I drove along the curving, narrow roads and little bridges that crisscross Woodlawn’s 60 acres of maintained cemetery property, I realized that my four-year-old memories were not strong navigational material. This might take me all night, I thought to myself, feeling rather stupid for not asking for the little map you can get at the office before it closes for the day.
I am not one to be deterred when my mind is made up, so I decided that, even if it took me all night long, even if I had to walk miles of the edges of this cemetery, I would visit Kong and have my catnip celebration with him. So I drove along the edges of this beautiful spot, discounting the areas that included older looking headstones. I’ll just start on this end, I told myself, parking, and if I walk all night, that’s OK, too.
I marched up to the edge of the line of forest where I decided to start, and I looked down. “Christopher ‘Kong’ Squires,” the first marker read. I dropped to my knees.
What are the odds, in a 60-acre cemetery that is home to tens of thousands of precious loved ones, that I would find him at first glance? But then again, our love was always magic; of course I found him, of course I was drawn to him.
Still, I was struck with awe as I laid down against the cool stone that marked his life. In the distance, I could hear other families talking, children playing. Even on a cool Tuesday night, Woodlawn is glowing with love and remembrance, and I felt something so proud and special that his life is memorialized there, too. So many great, loved, beautiful souls are remembered there. It is profoundly lovely, a reflection of the beauty and history of Winona itself. Woodlawn is a treasure, I thought, as I said goodbye and drove past the other people there on Tuesday night.
Hours later, a tornado ripped through Woodlawn, causing destruction that cannot be described.
It’s rare that a news event that doesn’t harm people truly makes my heart stop, but on Wednesday morning, the thought of a tornado there struck me to my core. On Wednesday afternoon, when I went to photograph the aftermath, the pain was physical. This beautiful icon of Winona and the people we love, it has been devastated. My friend, Tim Leahy, said over the phone he couldn’t describe the damage. A picture is worth so many words, he told me. But when I tried to photograph it, I realized. No one or two or three photos can possibly show the level of damage, destruction, that has happened here. There is no angle of the lens that can capture it. Dozens of hundred-year-old trees were ripped from the ground and tossed down the hillsides, bowling over precious headstones and markers. Dozens, probably 40 or 50 of the giant ones, their roots twice as tall as me. Tiny trees flew into other trees, giant branches everywhere. Bright pink flower bouquets were scattered amid the destruction. Roads were upturned and impassable.
I am obviously not from tornado country. I understand that stronger tornados that touch down on homes and harm and kill people are cause for much more distress. But to see the havoc and destruction on such a sacred place, a place I where I had just witnessed such love and solemn beauty the night before ... I was speechless. The devastation is unreal.
It doesn’t help to know that Woodlawn was already struggling financially. The cemetery association has been barely squeaking by over the last few years, trying creative ways to engage us to raise money. One can only imagine how much it takes to respectfully maintain 60 acres of our loved ones, some of whom, like Johnny Latsch, probably only paid a few hundred dollars for their graves to be maintained into perpetuity.
So, my friends, those of you who have someone you love planted there forever. It is such a blessing that they will be remembered for eternity, that little children will toss a ball one day and stumble upon a marker that says Kong “scattered kindness,” and think of what a man he might have been. Those who might stumble upon the poetry of John and Jake’s graves and think deeply about the meaning of life.
We should all be grateful for Woodlawn and the way it has, and will, preserve the people in Winona we love, the ones who made a difference to this city and to us. Woodlawn absolutely needs us now. Please consider donating to help in the recovery. If Woodlawn ever needed you, it needs you now. Donations can be made to the Woodlawn Recovery Effort and mailed to Woodlawn Cemetery, 506 West Lake Boulevard, Winona, Minn., 55987, attn: Donations; or, visit woodlawncemeterymn.com.