Kneeling and peering closely, I ran my fingers over the cold, bespoke tombstone with the well worn, letters that revealed a missing piece of my family’s history. To the local residents of Compton Bishop, I was just another graveyard visitor, but nothing could be further from the truth. For a few brief moments, I relished in the satisfaction of making the connection between my great great grandfather, the immigrant who toiled over wild, overgrown lands which would later be known as Kansas, and his birthplace in a small town in Somerset, England.
I was in search of my heritage, and in search of cheese.
If you know my family, this is not as ridiculous as it sounds. We are cheese lovers through and through. I’m not just talking about Kraft American Singles; we are cheese connoisseurs, afficionados of the finest cheeses the world has to offer. Camembert, Limberger, Stilton, English Cheddar, Parmesan, Pont l’Eveque, Chevre, Brie, Asiago, Fribourgeois, Bleu, Pecorino and others were staples at family meals when I was growing up. While most of my friends were enjoying sweet treats, like cakes, cookies and ice cream, my family was relishing the odor of a good stinky cheese with a port chaser.
I mistakenly thought that our love of cheese stemmed from my grandfather’s stay in England and France during World War II. A pilot who chauffeured key military strategists back and forth through war zones, during his down time he had the good fortune to stay at country estates and learn the joys of partaking in wine and cheese for dessert. While he may have entered the war as a gentleman and a patriotic countryman, he returned with a teensy bit of wine and cheese snobbery to share with his family.
I discovered years later that was only part of the story. My great grandmother told me her father’s family members in Somerset were acclaimed dairy farmers and cheese makers. Now things were starting to make sense — loving cheese was actually in my genetic code. Generations and generations of my family were experienced and respected cheese makers. In fact, had my great great grandfather not decided to seek his fortune in America, I might have been born British, living in a quaint cottage at the edge of pastures filled with fine dairy cows.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that my great great grandfather’s ancestral home was a stone’s throw from the village of Cheddar, the area that gave its name to, well, you know what. Compton Bishop was a small little dot on the map usually taking a back seat to more bustling towns like Axebridge. The area had been the ancestral homeland of Henry Burdge for hundreds of years. With those kind of ties to the area, it was hard for me to imagine why he left such a beautiful, green, quaint area such as Compton Bishop to farm the dusty plains of Kansas. He literally traded a relatively civil life in the bucolic English countryside for a mud hut in Indian territory in a very unpopulated, unfriendly area several thousand miles away.
Something happened in Kansas. Shattered dreams, little or minimal fame and fortune, bad marriages and some very wild, untameable land. Cheese making took a back seat to other more important things like maintaining peace with the natives, wars, droughts and basic survival. Without the perfect weather and soil conditions of the Cheddar Valley and southwest Somerset, raising dairy cows and making cheese were not realistic or profitable. Things happen. One day you’re living in a beautiful country cottage making cheese loved and embraced the whole world over, and the next your building mud houses, battling tornados, trying to hold your marriage together in the middle of nowhere.
Almost twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to visit my ancestral lands, also known as England and Wales. Many of the Burdge family were still in Somerset, some on the same land that had been passed down from generation to generation until one crazy son decided that the English countryside was just too tame for him. Armed with a good map and not nearly as good driving-on-the-opposite-side-of-the-road-and-car skills, I found myself traveling down the same country roads as my forefathers, snaking through the beautiful Cheddar Gorge, and maneuvering down narrow, hedge covered roads, the same roads that my ancestors once took by carriage and horseback.
When I found the graveyard where many of my ancestors had been buried, a chill ran down my spine. Finding this place, this link to my past, was like finding the missing piece to a puzzle, a piece that revealed a stunning picture of who I was and where I came from.
Next to the church graveyard was a classic pasture, perhaps one that was once in the possession of the Burdge family. My family. I reached down and plucked a few blades of grass which came up with bits of soil still attached to the roots. I rubbed my hands back and forth in the grass and soil and then touched the palms of my hands to my face, breathing in the scent of what it meant to be a child of this earth in Somerset, England.
I felt as if I was the child of one of the prodigal Burdge sons, finally returning home. As I was.