Melissa Condit rests in the garden just outside my back garden window. Or, rather, her gravestone does. Where Melissa’s bones rest is a mystery.
August 1980, a blisteringly hot afternoon. I’m living in the South End of Hartford, Connecticut, in a colonial-style house built in 1939. The driveway in back is narrow so, despite the numbing heat, I dig out the sides, down two feet, widening it. Suddenly I unearth a slab of white marble. Clearing the dirt away, I discover a tombstone, face down; and shortly afterwards two other broken marble pieces. My first thought is that I’m living over a nineteenth graveyard, but no—the three pieces are spaced out, face down, stepping stones to some now-forgotten destination, macabre as that strikes me. Lifted up, turned right side up, two pieces are halves of one tombstone. The third piece is blank.
I lay the complete tombstone in a garden bed, and read:
Daughter of Chilion C. and Jane
Died August 30, 1846 AE.13 mo. 12d.
There is an inscription, as well, though some words are lost because of the break in the stone. “Oh, why dear babe to thee was given/… the gift of Heaven/ If thou so soon twas . . .away/ Ere . . . morn of the Day.”
I do nothing the rest of that afternoon but sit there, a glass of iced tea in my hand, contemplating a little girl who died 134 years earlier. Almost, in fact, to the day.
So began my journey with Melissa.
I assumed my task was simple: return the stone to the cemetery from which it has been cruelly pilfered. I wanted to send Melissa back to her family. But over the years I searched out cemetery records of storied Hartford burial grounds, but came up short. Nary a Condit to be found. Yet I persisted, even walked around church graveyards throughout Connecticut. Nothing. Each summer the gravestone lay in a garden surrounded by sweeping beds of impatiens. Visiting friends asked me why it was taking so long to send her home. I had no answer.
When I moved out of Hartford in 1998, I carried Melissa with me, not wanting to leave her behind and risk her possibly being lost again. So Melissa rested in a new place now. As the seasons passed, I could glance out the library window and see the graying marble.
Nearly three decades passed, and there were whole years I neglected her journey. But the advent of the Internet shifted my focus. One snowy day last year I spent a long Sunday tracing genealogical records online. Lo and behold, I discovered: The Genealogical Record of the Condit Family, Descendants of John Cunditt, 1678-1885 (1885). And there, on page 134, was my Melissa. Suddenly I understood her lineage. John Cunditt’s son Peter had five sons, the last grandson being Samuel, ancestor to Chillion and his daughter Melissa. The family had settled in New Jersey, mostly Orange, Essex County. The Condits helped found Newark and Morristown. Little Melissa had siblings, a brother William who became an electrician in Brooklyn, a brother Henry in Jersey City. The father died in 1880, but her mother Jane lived in Jersey City until her death in 1905.
My heart raced. Could my journey at an end? Excited, I trudged out to the winder garden, brushed away the snow, and, chilled to the bone, ran my fingers over the graying inscription. Melissa somehow removed to Connecticut, far from Essex County, New Jersey. Back inside, I surfed the net. I sent e-mails to the Condit Family Genealogy Forum at Geneology.com, others to individual Condits I could locate, to the New Jersey Historical Society, other societies, posting on “Rootweb,” even considered a letter to ex-Congressman Gary Condit out in California, though I chose not to. I sat back and waited. Melissa waited. I offered to drive the gravestone from Connecticut to New Jersey. I thought she might be buried in the First Presbyterian Church in Orange, where some illustrious ancestors (including a U.S. Senator) are buried.
I did hear from David Condit who caught my query, and he provided me with valuable information. It seems that Melissa's headstone really did belong in Hartford, Connecticut, but there was no way to know which cemetery held her remains.
Melissa's father was born in New Jersey in January 1822 and married Jane Baughan in 1844 with Melissa being born in 1846. Whether Melissa was born in Connecticut or New Jersey there was no information, but her older brother William, born Sep 1847 was born in Connecticut. Since Melissa died in Sep 1847 she must have died in Connecticut and was probably buried there as the family stayed in Hartford for at least three more years when Henry was born (1853).
Melissa's father was a "collar maker" and seems to have tried to settle in Hartford but moved back to Jersey City, New Jersey before 1858 when his son Chillion was born.
Welcome information, but the trail then went dead.
A dead end. I have to begin again.
The days are getting warmer now. I’ve raked the twigs and leaves from the garden. I noticed the first tender shoots of the purple iris starting to inch upward. The afternoon sun bakes the cool marble, Every so often, from my library window, I glance out at Melissa. Almost three decades now. Well, I made a promise to send Melissa back to her family. But the days pass, and Melissa lies in my garden. Waiting.