A Peaceful Place to Rest


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.

CivilWarvetWe 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 gHallchildgraverave. 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.



On the last Saturday of June each year, my first cousins, my siblings and I – and our parents, spouses, kids, in-laws, grandkids, and other cousins and friends – gather for a long weekend in Mississippi to reconnect and strengthen our relationship as extended family.

We started this tradition in 2000. Over the years, as new spouses and other friends and extended family drop in, we have learned that they consider our reunion unusual in that we all like each other, get along well, and choose to be together. In fact, we go to a lot of trouble to be together.

Here’s how it all started.

My dad had one brother, Uncle Yewell Wayne (which Dad, as a child, shortened to “Nayne”) and one sister, Aunt Ella Mary. My brother, sister and I grew up in Mississippi some 30 miles from Aunt Mary and her husband, our Uncle Lyman, and our first cousins Mac, Sarah Lynn and Lisa. Our ages were complimentary: Mac and Anita were the same age, and Bob and Sarah Lynn were two years younger, so Anita and Sarah played together and Mac and Bob ran around together. As babies of our family, Lisa and I brought up the rear and were playmates from the word go.

Uncle Nayne and Aunt Lois lived in Louisville, Kentucky, so we rarely saw our more distant first cousins, twins Perry and Kerry and their younger sisters Patsy and Nancy. But they came to Mississippi for one glorious week every summer, and we had a grand time. Perry and Kerry hung out with Mac and Bob, and Patsy and Nancy and Lisa and I played together.

We were prototypical children of the 1970s. I remember we all went on a hiking trip one year, all riding together in a big Chevy van, and on the way home we sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” – still receiving heavy rotation airplay – to the tops of our lungs.

I had a device called a Lemon Twist, a black tube with a loop on one end and a plastic lemon on the other. It was like a one-legged jump rope; you kicked your leg to get the lemon rotating around, and you’d jump with the other leg. Lisa and Nancy and Patsy and I did the lemon twist for hours one summer, accompanied by our two favorite songs of the moment: The Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” and the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin’.”

(If you can’t remember what a Lemon Twist looked like, here’s a link to the commercial. It’s pretty trippy.)

And then we all grew up. We started getting into high school and summer jobs and romances and dating, and college and marrying and starting our own families; the annual visits from Louisville became fewer and fewer and the Mississippi cousins went our separate ways. We all talked by phone on major holidays, but in terms of staying close, we gradually lost touch. I think the last major visit from Louisville was in 1981.

It went on this way for years. In 1992, Mama Ferrell, our mutual grandmother and family matriarch, died. The Louisville folks came for her funeral, and we spent time with each other for the first time in many years. We stood around Mama Ferrell’s grave and said we would not go so long, next time, without seeing each other.

But then we did. And then, one day, it was the year 2000. By now one of the Louisville cousins had relocated to Knoxville, and my sister and her family were in Dallas, I was in Nashville, Mac was in Nashville, and our cousin Sarah and her husband Les were in Phoenix. On one of my visits to Mississippi, Lisa and I talked about it. It had been eight years since we had all promised to stay in touch, and we had not. So we decided we would put out feelers to see how everyone would feel about a reunion. We took a survey to see what time of year would work for the most people, whether they would want to have it in a central location like Nashville or come to Mississippi, what kind of food, what type of facility, etc.

We settled on the last Saturday in June as being after school ended but before vacation time. The Louisville cousins said they wanted to come back to Mississippi, to the place where they had come every summer during their childhood, and the rest of us agreed.

The first few years we rented a pavilion in Tishomingo State Park, a lovely rustic park built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps from locally quarried sandstone and limestone. We reserved a pavilion on a lake with paddle boats. But it was June in Mississippi, and after a few years we found a little building in the Belmont city park that offered air conditioning, a meeting room with tables and a refrigerator for perishables and a sink for washing up, and a large front lawn for what would become the annual bocce ball tournament.

We try to keep the food relatively simple. On Friday nights we gather at my parents’ house and have baked ham sandwiches, chips and dip and desserts. Saturday, the main day of the reunion, happens at Belmont City Park. For the first few years, we would grill burgers and hot dogs and bratwurst, with everyone contributing side dishes and desserts. Later we branched out into smoked pork loin or chicken quarters or barbecue, and fried chicken. We visit all day, talking, playing Apples to Apples or Pictionary or Scattergories or charades inside, and bocce ball and frisbee outside. The little ones run through sprinklers and blow bubbles and draw chalk drawings on the sidewalks. We stay until dusk, when the bats dive for mosquitoes and the swallows are roosting in their nests above the door to the building, then we clean up and load the cars to go rest. On Sunday morning, Lisa hosts a brunch at her house. By noon we begin our hugs and goodbyes (usually with a few tears), then those of us who are traveling hit the road to return home.

Everyone who can come, does. My sister and brother, now in Colorado, manage to make it about every other year. My generation’s children became instantly hooked on it, and now their children are the ones running through the sprinklers. This year we had three newborn babies, the oldest one not quite four months old. Every year there are those who cannot come, and there are some who have never been able to make it. But everyone is always welcome.

So we have a set weekend, decided upon by majority vote, that is inviolate; we have a food routine, always subject to change as circumstances change; and we have a location that works well for us. But it takes more than that to make a family reunion a success. Here are some (heretofore) unspoken rules that our family follows from year to year that take our reunion from obligation to a highlight of the calendar year.

  1. No one postures. No one brags about money or material gain or success in this or that field. As Lisa’s husband Arthur once said, marveling, “Y’all don’t try to outdo or out-talk or out-anything. Nobody puts on airs. Y’all all just like being together.
  2. No one gets into politics. Our family members’ views rank from pretty far right to pretty far left, but we leave that at the door. We may not have a lot in common in some ways, but we have a shared history, shared grandparents, shared blood, shared memories, shared values, a shared love of music, and a shared need for the enrichment that extended family brings. We love each other. We are committed to staying in touch with each other. We don’t care about our differences. We knew each other as toddlers, long before we developed those differing views. As a result, we know, love and accept each other for who and what we are. All are welcome. Anything that might cause unnecessary dissent or hurt feelings is just not on for us.
  3. Likewise, any hard feelings between individuals are either non-existent (usually, in fact, which is amazing) or, like politics, are left at the door. Everyone wants to be considerate of everyone else. No one wants to embarrass everyone present with an unseemly public display of emotion or conflict. Except love. Everyone pretty much wants to demonstrate love.
  4. No one forces anything on everyone else. No one is forced to endure long stretches of anything they don’t enjoy. No one is forced to play contact sports, no one makes everyone else a captive audience to their karaoke skills. Everything is optional. We do have a prayer over the food (of which there is a staggering quantity and variety). We do sometimes have a “hymn sing” at the old piano, which once graced my grandmother’s living room, for a few songs, anyway. But no one takes over.
  5. Profanity is left at the door and blue humor is shared discreetly one-on-one or not at all. Children are present, and while we’re not angels, there is an unspoken rule that we keep the main gathering family-friendly.
  6. By the same token, alcohol does not play a role at the three main gatherings on Friday night, Saturday during the day or Sunday morning. What people do when they return to their homes or hotel rooms is up to them.
  7. We don’t have a program. We don’t have an agenda. We don’t have a dress code (other than, hey, it’s Mississippi in June, so be cool). We don’t have a schedule. We have no pride, no ego. Our relationship with each other means more than self-promotion. Our sole purpose for the entire weekend is to just be together.
  8. Underlying all the above rules is this: we respect one another.

The bonds between cousins get stronger every year, helped along by social networking and texting. The value of extended family as friends, apparently a rarity in the world at large, is the norm for our family. We consider it a great gift, and we cultivate it and do not take it for granted. We are committed to it. Like the song says, love isn’t just something that we have, it’s something that we do.