Whitesburg KY

Decoration Day

It was the first time we had been back to the mountains since we laid Mother to rest beside Dad on top of this lovely mountain. The road up the hollow is better now than it was when I was a child. We used to always come here on Memorial Day Sunday, or Decoration Day as we called it. My thoughts wandered back to those childhood days as my husband Frank and I walked up the hill.

Those Sundays were something very special. I always had a new dress for the occasion. Sometimes it was made out of feed sacks with panties to match. The sacks were a very fine material and my mother would get two or three sacks alike so there would be plenty of material for my dress.

For weeks before Decoration Day, we all had a part in making crepe paper flowers to decorate the graves of our relatives. There were roses, sweet peas, carnations, and violets, all made by loving hands. Then they were dipped in hot wax to preserve the colors and make it easier to fashion them into crosses, wreaths, or just simple bunches for the children to carry.

After the graves were decorated everyone would gather on the top of the hill for singing, and there would be several visiting preachers. There was a preaching stand with a rail around three sides where the preachers sat. Out in front under the tall oak trees, there were logs placed to seat everyone else. These seats were logs with boards nailed on top, but no backs. These log pews would seat 40 to 50 people.

While the ministers preached a memorial service, we children would roam over the graves looking at the dates and wondering about the ones that were marked with just a plain rock. The rock would be triangular-shaped and stood at the foot of the grave. After a bit of wandering about, we would sneak back up the hill to listen to the singing as if we had been there the entire time. I’m sure Mother knew exactly where I was, but she never said anything.

When the service ended, everyone would leave the hollow and go to the Little Dove Church, almost two miles down the road. There we would spread out our picnic dinner over the ground and all enjoy a tasty meal. We would have chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, many kinds of home canned vegetables, fruit, pies, and the special cakes of the cooks. It seemed there was enough food to feed a small army in addition to all the relatives. I saw many cousins, aunts, and uncles, some that I only saw at this special time. Family came from near and far. When the day ended, we went home with a sense of satisfaction and joy that would last for weeks. Little did we know then that the joy of this remembrance would last forever.

I thought back over the time when Mom and Dad lived in log cabins just a few miles from this mountaintop. They were born, grew up, courted, were married, and lived there the first part of their life together, in sight of the graveyard. Dad used to hunt squirrels up there frequently, and judging by the sight of hickory nut hulls covering the ground, there are still plenty of squirrels around.

Most of Dad’s working years were spend underneath these mountains in the darkness of the coalmines. Mom’s days were spent in the garden in the summertime, working the ground to help feed their five children through the long winter to come. We never went hungry, but there were times when the pantry was almost bare. All of us kids did our best to help out with the chores from milking the cows and slopping the hogs to chopping the firewood. I can still taste that good old country ham frying in Mom’s cast iron skillet. Soon to be snuggled close were the pans of biscuits and gravy. Mom’s biscuits were the best. My sister and I could never duplicate them. Guess we never had all the practice that she did. After all, Mother dropped out of school in the fourth grade to help take care of younger brothers and sisters.

When Dad’s health turned bad with the black lung disease, he left the coalmines to work in Virginia and Tennessee before ending up in Dayton, Ohio, at the Frigidaire Plant. My younger brother and I finished our growing up in Dayton, away from the familiar mountains we had known. There were many trips back to be with aging grandparents and other family members. On one trip back, Dad even picked out the place where he wanted to be buried, with Mom beside him. Now their bodies rest together on this lovely quiet mountaintop. It helps me to remember that their bodies are just empty shells, and that their souls are with the Lord having a wonderful time playing in some old style bluegrass Angel band.

I can see everything very clearly as I sit here remembering. I can understand why Dad wanted to be brought back to these old Kentucky hills. Who of us in this day and age have had the opportunity to recall so many good things about the place where they want to end up? This is the land that our great-grandfathers homesteaded when they came through the gap of the mountains from Virginia into this fertile valley. I’m not sad as I remember, for I know that their bodies are together and will weather the seasons with their parents, sisters and brothers who went on before them, and are all buried on this mountain.

I can go back to the city now. A feeling of peace that I have not felt in ages has been restored in these brief few moments, walking where my ancestors trod. Perhaps it will change the outlook I have on my life and problems like we all face. We try to raise our children in the way we know best, and that’s all we can do. I am proud of my heritage and proud of everyone who had a part in making me the person I am today.

Frank is through trimming the shrubs now. They had gone unchecked for many years. The clay earth covering Mom has been smoothed out and her stone straightened. It will remain that way for a long time, lovingly cared for by the family.

As I cast one last look back, I reflect that we can’t go back, and that change is constant. I have accepted my life as it is today. Now I can go from here with the refreshed memory of my parents guiding my footsteps as I grew up on this mountain, just as our ancestors did with their children, in this same place, so my years before.

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