Joe and Shirley Tellam were tending to their own loved one’s Greenwood Cemetery gravesite when Shirley was struck by a separate section of the cemetery that needed some serious TLC.
Burial plots bearing the names of families hailing from Cornwall, England — the origins of many of the miners who once made Grass Valley the heart of the gold industry, were covered by several seasons of fallen leaves and pine needles, along with overgrown brush and tree limbs.
“I was so happy to cut bushes and clean there because Joe’s family is from Cornwall, England,” Shirley said.
She didn’t set out to take on the task, but Shirley was soon on her way to conducting a project that left the vast majority of unendowed burial sites within the ceremony all cleaned up.
She had started with fresh gravel over the final resting place of her brother-in-law, former Grass Valley mayor and fire chief, Ed Tellam, who died in February. And while Joe worked on cutting a tree from his uncle’s gravesite, Shirley shifted her attention to raking around the graves of the Cornwall natives.
“The next thing I knew I was across the way, raking there,” Shirley said. “I found a grave there for two sisters, ages 5 and 7.”
Soon after, she picked up some toys from neighborhood yard sales and returned to place them on the site. Suddenly, 68-year-old Shirley Tellam had established a routine that stretched into seven separate sections of the cemetery and several weeks of her summer, totaling more than 90 hours of her time.
She typically would not have had so much time on her hands, but she has been off work for several months after a January fire burned down Grass Valley’s Humpty Dumpty Restaurant, where she has provided service with a smile for more than 50 years.
Her volunteer hours at the cemetery not only occupied her time but also provided exercise and a sense of purpose, she said.
“I raked more leaves and pine needles than I ever have in my entire life,” she said with a laugh.
But ask her why she took the time to do so, and her sweet smile is soon joined by tears welling from her eyes.
“Because …,” she managed. “Because they were somebody’s loved ones.”
Her random act of kindness quickly turned into a bit of an adventure. Frequenting weekend garage sales turned up dozens of toys that she placed upon the gravesites of children.
“I think that touched me the most,” she said. “To see the babies there.”
She turned her attention to placing flags over the graves of military veterans.
“Those guys fought for our country,” she said. “They should have flags there.”
She also heard a new story from her husband after the couple unearthed the gravesite of a woman who once lived near Bell Hill School. Joe told Shirley that the woman would bake and give him cookies on his walk home from school.
“Had I not cleaned that section of the cemetery,” she said, “I wouldn’t know that story.”
She also might not have met Edwina Grande, whose home sits near the cemetery and who spotted Shirley working in the early morning summer sun one day.
“I see this lady out there at 7:28 in the morning, and it’s hot already,” Edwina said. “I said, ‘Young lady, would you like some water or something,’ and she started telling me about what she was doing — which was wonderful.”
Turns out Edwina and her husband live in a home once owned by a member of the Tellam family.
“I thought, ‘Whoa! This is weird,’” Edwina said. “And one thing led to another and we were talking.
“I just think she really needs to be recognized for what she’s done. You walk around that cemetery and you see every single grave she has raked up. She has made that cemetery look wonderful.”
Shirley, though, almost blushes about any attention being brought to her work, which has resulted in large piles of leaves and other debris that still need to be taken away, despite the truckloads her husband has already hauled off.
“If you had told me I’d be doing that before this summer, I would have said you were nuts,” she said. “But I just went day to day to day. It just got a hold of me once it started.
“I just wanted them to have a flower, to have something on their grave. I’d like to think someone would do something like that for me one day.”
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