Mom has a birthday this week, so I decided I’d take this weekend and travel to Mississippi to spend a little time with her and Dad. On Saturday afternoon we took a trip to the local Sonic Drive-In for happy hour half-price soft drinks, and then – as we are wont to do – we decided to take a drive through the countryside.
We wound our way through the back roads of Tishomingo County, looking at farmland and houses old and new, remembering whose homestead was at a particular site, where my grandparents lived when Mom was born, speculating as to who wound up where, and as we drove and talked, we drank in the sight of trees budding, daffodils along the roadway, the bright, fresh green of new grass, and fields still lying fallow, stretched underneath a spring blue sky, waiting for the growing season to begin.
Eventually we meandered over the state line into Alabama, and found ourselves in rural Colbert County, turning onto the gravel road that leads to Russell Cemetery. My paternal grandparents are buried there, along with two great-aunts and a great-uncle, my dad’s grandparents, and his little brother. Other relatives and members from other families in the community also find their final resting place there.
In the South, we have what we call “decoration” days, and the Russell Cemetery Decoration Day is the Saturday before the first Sunday in May. When I was growing up, the families whose loved ones lie there would gather on that Saturday morning in their work clothes, don their heavy work gloves and hats, and, armed with mowers, weed eaters, rakes, clippers, rags, soap and water, would set about cleaning up the landscaping and the tombstones. Then they’d place flowers on the graves.
We kids would occupy our time going down into the woods to the spring, watching the Santa Gertrudis cattle in the adjoining pasture (the bull, a particularly handsome fellow, would huff and puff at us, and paw the ground, in equal parts annoyed and curious), and visiting the various tombstones and speculating about the lives of the people buried there.
One tombstone featured an old sepia photo of a couple from the 19th century, the man’s coat sleeve hanging empty where he lost an arm in the Civil War. In another corner of the cemetery, rough-shaped stones – all but one or two uncarved and of indeterminate age – mark the graves of anonymous bones, people whose lives and names and stories are long lost to the past.
With the morbid fascination typical of children, my cousins and siblings and I always paid particular attention to a grave marked by a tiny tombstone on top of which perched a marble lamb. Toy cars, teddy bears, and other toys always adorned this grave. Our parents had explained to us several times over the years that the little boy buried here had died at the age of three after falling into a washtub of scalding hot water. We shivered at the horror of this story, and at the idea of death visiting a child close to our own ages. Sometimes we would bring a little toy as our own small token to place reverently on the grave of this child that we felt sure was a kindred spirit.
This young boy’s brother, a man named Rick Hall, grew up to found FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals, Hall gives a harrowing account of his brother’s death, and it is obvious that he still bears the emotional scars of that tragedy and its aftermath.
But in spite of the somber setting and the unsettling story of the little Hall boy, Decoration Day was, by and large, a fun time for children and adults alike, a day spent in an idyllic rural setting.
One year, the adults noticed that several cows in the adjacent pasture were acting odd. They were clustered in a circle around something on the ground that held their attention. They’d inch slowly up to the center of the circle, then quickly back away, shying away from whatever held their fascination.
“A snake,” everyone decided, and several men, armed with garden hoes, made their way into the pasture to kill the snake, only to find the cows spooked by a plastic grocery bag tumbling around in the spring breeze.
Generally, the morning’s work would go quickly and then we would haul lawn chairs out of our cars, set food out on two huge picnic tables comprised of cinder block legs and giant slabs of concrete for table tops, and feast on a great pot luck meal. The eating and the visiting would last a good two hours.
Many years later I was working in an office on Music Row and explaining that I was going home for the weekend. “It’s Decoration Day,” I said, explaining our family tradition to my office mates. My coworker Hal, a native of Long Island, New York, couldn’t get his mind around the concept.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You go to a cemetery…and you have a picnic?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” I said. Thereafter Hal would use that story to tease me about how weird Southerners are.
My cousin Mac likes to tell the story of how one year after dinner he and my brother Bob locked themselves in one of the cars and consumed the remainder of a chocolate cake my great-aunt Martha had made. Apparently they got in big trouble, and also got sick. And apparently they had taken both possibilities into account and had decided it would be worth the risk to eat the cake.
Over the years, the number of people attending Decoration Day has dwindled, and the pot luck dinner is no more. The little Hall boy’s grave has no toys on it. The silent unmarked graves keep their silence. The pasture is empty of cattle. But the beauty and the peace remain, unmarred by the modern world. Wind sweeps through the tree tops, across the sage grass in the fields, and over the occupants, ever asleep in tranquility’s quiet embrace.