In the beginning were the words.
Alexandra Grant stood in an antiques store in Buffalo, Wyoming, staring at the headstone of a baby girl named Lena Davis, 8 months, 5 days old.
“Died July 19, 1880,” read the inscription.
It was Grant’s third trip to the antiques store. Something about the headstone kept luring her back. At first she thought it was the aesthetic. Grant, a Los Angeles-based artist whose work often involves language, admired the design and text on the piece. She liked the look of the words.
She paid $125 for it — more than she could afford at the time, but there was just something about the headstone that pulled her into its sphere.
Fifteen years later, it still pulls.
Today, Grant toils away in an Old Market artist studio, poring through hours and hours of footage for a project called “Taking Lena Home.” The documentary will tell the remarkable story of the headstone’s return to the Nebraska cemetery where Lena is buried, a place called Pleasant Home. One by one it will introduce the other people who have found themselves pulled into the headstone’s sphere, people drawn together by something that sounds like coincidence but feels bigger than that.
The challenge is not in telling the linear story of what happened, Grant said, “but where and how it enters the symbolic realm.”
Because none of this really should have happened. For years, nothing did.
After buying the headstone in Wyoming in 2000, Grant returned to California and resumed her life as an aspiring artist. And things started to go her way. Her paintings, drawings and sculptures appeared in gallery show after gallery show. In 2007 she scored her first museum show, and in 2011 landed her first group exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of the most important arts institutions in the country.
All the while the headstone “was always just sitting there,” Grant said. She kept the marker at home for a few years, until something about it unnerved her — “It just had a lot of energy” — and she moved it into her studio.
Eight years it stayed there, waiting. Then, as Grant prepared to move into a larger studio, she felt a sudden, overwhelming sense of obligation.
It wasn’t right to keep it, she thought, and she set out to learn where it really came from.
Eleven years earlier, in Wyoming, the antiques store owner had pedaled a story Grant never really believed — that the headstone was removed from a nearby property. But she didn’t know where to turn for answers. She decided to put the headstone for sale online, pricing it unrealistically high, with hopes an expert would find it.
The timing — what Grant now calls “this psychic alarm clock” — was eerie.
Right around that time, in Scotia, Nebraska, a genealogy enthusiast named Julie Middendorf was reading an account of a 19th century headstone found at a garage sale. Middendorf found the idea “incongruent” — this idea that people buy and sell memorials that should be in cemeteries. She decided to search online for such sales. Almost immediately, she discovered Grant’s post.
With a little digging, Middendorf learned that Lena Davis wasn’t from Wyoming at all. She was from Nebraska. Lena’s resting place, just outside Polk, Nebraska, was less than 80 miles from her own front door.
She learned some things about Lena, too. She likely died of diphtheria or scarlet fever. Her father was 26; her mother, 19. She had a 3-year-old brother and 2-year-old sister, and both sets of grandparents.
Middendorf also learned there were people looking for the headstone, even if they didn’t realize it. The theft of Davis’ headstone in 1945, along with two other markers, was considered the oldest unsolved crime in Polk County. Within two days of Grant’s online post, the Sheriff’s Office contacted her. Grant knew right away what she needed to do.
A week later, she loaded up the headstone and drove from California to Nebraska.
Along the way she stopped in Colorado to meet a man named Chuck Doremus, first cousin to Lena Davis, who still recalled the day more than 60 years earlier when he and his father noticed the markers were missing.
Grant opened her trunk to show Doremus the headstone, and Doremus reached out to lay a hand on the monument, and in that moment Grant felt her role change. She was no longer possessor of the headstone. She had become its caretaker.
Grant delivered the headstone to the man suddenly in charge of the cold case, Polk County Chief Deputy Sheriff Bob Carey, who kidded her about being in possession of stolen property. She visited with others who had become part of the story, including Middendorf, and the kind volunteers from the Polk County Historical Society.
She returned the following year, in 2012, for a ceremony to reinstall the headstone in its proper place. About 80 people showed up, including Grant’s sister from London, brothers from Wisconsin and a friend from California. A minister read from an 1878 hymnal. The historical society volunteers showed up in matching neon shirts. Carey, in full uniform, thanked Grant for bringing such an unusual gift to the community. Middendorf spoke of the act’s significance.
“Oftentimes these tombstones are the only tangible evidence that a life was ever lived,” she said.
Grant spoke, too, describing her decadelong relationship with the headstone and how relieved she felt now that it was home.
“I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined a place so lovely,” she said.
After the memorial, all went their separate ways, their good thing seemingly done. It would seem like the logical end to the story, but it didn’t quite work out that way.
“I didn’t expect to come back every year,” Grant said.
The invitation in 2013 came from the historical society, which asked Grant to serve as an artist-in-residence, working with grade-school students on a book about the grasshopper infestation of 1874.
The invitation in 2014 came from Carey, who asked Grant to attend his wedding.
The invitation this year came from a staffer at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, who learned that Grant had been filming the headstone’s journey all along and urged her to finish the project in Nebraska.
So here she is now, combing through 30 hours of footage for the right clips to tell the story, and finding herself reflecting on what it all means.
Why did she buy that headstone in Buffalo, Wyoming?
Why did she wait 11 years to do anything with it, and how did it turn out to be the exact right moment to do so?
What will bring her back to Nebraska the next time?
“I’m going to be open to the unexpected,” she said. “This forced me to realize my life was going to be different than I imagined it.”
It’s what she means by the “symbolic realm.” It’s why Grant describes the story as a series of concentric circles, with Lena in the middle and then her immediate family closest, and then her extended family, including Chuck Doremus, and further out whoever stole her marker, and then whoever bought it, and the antique store owner, and Grant, and Middendorf, and Carey, and the historical society volunteers in their neon shirts, and everyone who took part in the headstone’s return to Pleasant Home.
There are all of the people who have somehow been pulled into the sphere of Lena Davis and now circle it, in orbit together. Some of them speak about it in the terms of their religious convictions, finding their meaning in God.
Grant has found herself looking, once again, to words — specifically those of the British novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell.
“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made,” he wrote. “A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will — whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures — and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well.”
Photos credit: Matt Miller/Omaha World-Herald.