It’s reunion weekend! Or, rather, it is Decoration Day for which we are gathered here today. It’s the first time several have joined us for this annual occasion, but most all who are stretched out here across the porch and yard are family members who have attended & helped most of their lives. The men brought rakes, clippers and other such tools to tidy up the ground and plots while the women and children cleaned and decorated the stones with flowers. Some date as far back as the Civil War but just recently another uncle and saint has been laid to rest. We’ve all been taught how to be respectful to walk around the plot rather than between the head and foot stones. And, as the saying goes, ‘many hands make light work’ surely played out perfectly with nearly a hundred of us banded together towards the task. That was in preparation for today. After attending the morning’s worship service, we slowly drove the short distance to pay our homage with hymn singing, special devotion and multiple prayers. Afterwards, we broke off into small clusters around the different graves to speak testimonials of those long gone on.
I was a young adult when first encouraged to attend Decoration Day here at our tiny family cemetery in Western North Carolina, and was intrigued from the very beginning by the fact that each grave across the seven or eight rows were related to one another either by birth or marriage. I imagined diagraming or gridding the plots as I’ve also learned to do with the family’s genealogy. The only difference is that our cemetery has a finite number of folks to sort out while these people in front of me represent multiple tiers of my relatives even to the extent of double first cousins!
But, here we are finally at the traditional part of this annual observance as we set up for dinner on the ground. Most recently, our dinners have been hosted by my aunt & uncle who live several miles away and have plenty of open space to spread out. We are framed by their patch of Christmas trees on one side and Aunt’s rose gardens on the other. Their little white frame house is only big enough for the women and smaller children who need to be under their watchful eyes. But, make no mistake. These women, proficient in multitasking, is almost exclusively focused on completing the preparations for the culinary feast that defines such a solemn occasion.
To entertain the children, an older teenage cousin brought out a fist full of spoons to divide and give a set to each little one. He then dialed the radio to the local station of old mountain music and attempted to teach them how to snap the spoons together in rhythmic accompaniment. Naturally, it’ll take much more practice and patience to learn the nuances of holding the spoons beyond this initial lesson. But, we all laugh at the great fun that they’re having making so much noise together. Besides, this new activity distracted them from playing sword fights so close to Aunt’s delicate roses.
The older men have unfolded and set up their webbed aluminum chairs and lined them together as though they plan to hold court. The truth of it, though, is that these men are lifelong friends who, at the same time, are either brothers or brothers-in-law to the women working side by side in the kitchen. It’s Uncle Clay’s home and, though his heart is set on the fried chicken and smoked country ham he saw piled high on large old platters, he’s agreed to also grill burgers. So he stands at his grill armed with spatula in hand while the other men offer advice regarding the readiness of the coals. Many believe Uncle Clay to be of Melungeon descendancy because of his dark olive complexion, black eyes and hair, but no one has dared to suggest that to him. He’s very quiet and offers few comments but is one of my very favorite relatives because he’s also so very sweet. I stand by him though I’ve invaded this fraternal circle of patriarchs, but he encourages me with a smile intended only for me.
Uncle Spurgeon and Basil are first cousins and share the same grandparents who are legendary to our family though not of any blood relation to me. Uncle Spurgeon is married to Mother’s older sister, Aunt Myrtle, and both are generous of spirit and, as my Dad used to say, “would give you the shirt off of his back.” Uncle Basil, as I began to think of him, laughed often and enjoyed these men especially Daddy since they were both natural jokesters. His daughters and I once petition Basil to adopt me and he readily and without hesitation agreed as long as it was understood that there should be no expectation of inheritance. That was fine by me! I just wanted all of his famous hugs.
Down the row from Uncle Spurgeon and Basil are Uncle Ray and Daddy. My father laughs the loudest, slaps his knees most often and goads each of his brother-friends, even Uncle Clay, into a fit of guffaws at his antics. But, Uncle Ray, who rests his hand on Daddy’s far armrest, is a true mountaineer married to another of my Mom’s sisters. I believe that he is Daddy’s kindred spirit. They enjoy getting in trouble with each other like boys and genuinely love each other rarely seen between men. Daddy, though born to mountain folk and reputed to be the great grandson of a Cherokee woman, enjoys hunting, pitching horseshoes and camping. So, it came as a surprise that he chose accounting as his profession. On the other hand, I’ve seen his buddy, Uncle Ray, drop an apple butter paddle without thought of burning the apples to run go get his gun when he heard the dogs tree a bear. It was he and Aunt Nancy who served the first helping of bear roast to my child and me, and we’ve since appreciated them for the awesome bragging rights to say that we had eaten Carolina Black Bear.
The last of my treasured elders included Uncle Tyler, Uncle Charlie, Uncle Joe and Uncle Buddy. Uncle Tyler is Mother’s next to youngest brother and a beloved pastor who studies the scriptures with a passion and hunger. But, in his youth when Grandfather made him ride chaperone on Mother’s dates, he sowed a few wild oats. Mother recalls the time that she was infuriated with him because he had enjoyed a healthy portion of homemade peach schnapps during the evening, got snookered, and then had driven her home only to bounce the old car off the trunk of a tree to bring it to its final stop. She was even especially annoyed with their father when she told on Uncle Tyler to him and Grandfather ducked his head to quickly leave the room. He couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear either from his daughter being so indignant or the sight of his son walking right past him and up the stairs to bed without a word.
Uncle Joe is the family’s naughty boy and also a husband to one of the sisters. He has a huge cigar fired up now and smoking it solo right out there in front of the children. He also sports a brightly colored printed shirt, speaks with a decided Yankee accent and loves his tribe of Appalachian relatives. All of us cousins think he’s so cool and are intrigued just because he is brazen to be so different. Uncle Charlie, another brother-in-law, is exactly the opposite of our flamboyant Uncle Joe because of his even quiet ways. He is, however, a brilliant carpenter of the old order and, in his spare time, builds clocks for every single family within our large extended family. Even I, as a niece, own a beautifully hand-crafted clock. Lastly is our Uncle Buddy who always joins the men but usually at the farthest end. He never ever speaks a word. He had joined the Marines and could have been a poster boy for recruitment because he was so handsome. But, he had driven supply trucks to and from the front during the Korean War, and had seen and dodged enough daily carnage so that he came home a broken soul. He never married and leads a solitary life. I can tell that he enjoys the company of these men who are kindly towards him in spite of the inability to establish a friendship.
I was soon called to duty as my aunts & older cousins began bringing out platters, casseroles, homemade kraut, pickled eggs & beets, sliced tomatoes and steaming corn on the cob. I made several laps as did they with additional platters of fresh biscuits, pans of cornbread, lots of deviled eggs, green beans and multiple desserts of pies, cakes and banana puddings. Pitchers of sweet tea and homemade lemonade were the last to emerge. Uncle Spurgeon, as the eldest amongst us on this particular August, was called to ask grace. Every hat was removed, every head deeply bowed and the children clasped their hands together as we fell silent and he began. “Now, our Gracious Father, we thank thee for thou many blessings.” He spoke a long time to Him who provided both food and the hands that prepared it all and finally came to the concluding “Amen” just when we all feared the steam off of the food might have dissipated.
Children and women alike waited as our precious men were handed plates to initiate the pilgrimage down the long line of homemade offerings. “Pass the biscuits,” Daddy hollered as he came to the creamy chicken gravy misplaced too far from the biscuits. The men roared with laughter that Ned would find himself too far separated from his favorite dishes!
Moments later, as I balanced my plate across my knees, gravy & biscuit included, I think of the old ones who lie at rest up the road and of their old ways. I know, however, that today’s set of similar folks & ways will be my personal heritage, and bow my head to whisper once again, “Now, our Gracious Father, we thank thee for thou many blessings! Amen.”