One of the sweetest memories of our father was that on Mama’s birthday, she stayed in bed until he had cooked her breakfast and then she leisurely got up and ate her big breakfast while we girls pitched in and cleaned the house because, after all, it was Mama’s day. Being the oldest, I had the biggest job. I made up the beds and one sister ran the dust mop and Daddy washed the dishes and mopped the kitchen floor. Then the fun began. We had a day to go sightseeing. Daddy never planned the day; he just drove and we never knew where we would wind up but it would be somewhere interesting. Our father wasn’t always the easiest person to live with but he sure knew how to celebrate special days.
Thanksgiving was such an important family day. Our kinfolks came from as far as Evansville and Frankfort. We all always went to the old Lewis homeplace. There would barely be room enough to hold us all and I can remember sleeping on a pallet if we all got together. My readers have read much about Thanksgiving and Christmas at Ma and Pa’s but it bears repeating that it was a great time for the whole family. My grandmother was the most organized person I have ever known so things just rolled along, smooth as could be. Food was always on the table when it was time, the children always ate first on the big cook table in the kitchen and then we all went out to play. There might be one of Pa’s brothers and his family at the Thanksgiving table and maybe another family or two. Ma could feed the big dining table full of people two or three times and still seem calm about it all. I knew then how much preparation there was behind her calm demeanor but she never let it show to her guests. In the dining room, there was a big old-fashioned pie safe and it would be full of pies and cakes which had been baked a day or two previous to the big day. Since the dining room had no heat and had no double windows or storm doors, that room was very, very cold in winter so the baked things stayed fresh.
I can’t remember any special prayers on Thanksgiving but I do remember that everyone at Ma’s table was so happy to see each other and catch up on family news. Ma had a rule that politics was never to be brought up at table because Pa was a Republican and our daddy was a hot Democrat and loved to start a friendly argument which never stayed friendly on Pa’s part; therefore no politics at Ma’s table.
Christmas was just like Thanksgiving only moreso. We might stay two or three days and some of Pa’s relatives might come after Christmas Day for a day of visiting and more food would be put on the table. There was always lots of ham and canned vegetables and fruit and of course there were still pies and cakes. There was always Ma’s little Christmas tree and gifts for the children and of course, gifts for Ma and Pa.
As you may have surmised by now, all holidays were centered around Ma. She was the planner, the organizer and the reason we all came together. Pa played a very large part but it was Ma who was the “power behind the throne”.
But the day I remember so well was Decoration Day. That’s what Ma called it and it is still Decoration Day for me. As you may know, Memorial Day, as it is known now, started back in 1866 in Columbia, Mississippi when four women decided to decorate the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers. They decided to also put flowers on the graves of the fallen Union soldiers who were also buried there. A local newspaper carried the story and it quickly spread throughout the country. It was a very meaningful thing to do since the country was so divided at that time. The day was first named Decoration Day in New York, later changed to Memorial Day, and the date was set for May 30. The date was changed to the last Monday in May in 1971. Did you know that over 200,000 men died in the Civil War and many more were crippled for life?
My grandmother, Ma, spent the whole day cleaning the graves at the Lewis cemetery on their farm on Memorial Day. We would take a small rake, a bucket of water and a big lot of flowers, whatever was in bloom at the time. She kept jars on each graves and when we left, the little cemetery was clean and had lots of flowers. She talked to me about each person buried there. She had known all of them. There was Thomas Lewis, Pa’s father, who had been in the Union Cavalry all through the war. Then there was his wife, Grandma Caroline, who outlived him by many years. Thomas had ridden his horse, the same one, throughout the entire war, and came home with a kidney disease and suffered the rest of his life. I remember associating Thomas of the fierce portrait in Ma’s front room in his Union uniform with the little tombstone. It was while we worked during the day that I learned to revere my ancestors who suffered and died so long before. They seemed to come alive while she talked about them.
Then we trudged to another, bigger, cemetery to put flowers on her sister Susie’s grave. I would be so tired that I happily sat while she cleaned Susie’s grave. There I learned how Susie lived and died and then back we went to the house, more than a mile away. My legs would hardly carry me.
Then on the front porch, after supper, she talked about her mother-in-law sitting on that same front porch while the Civil War battle at Donaldson was fought and she could hear the big guns on the Union gunboats and the guns on the banks manned by Southern soldiers trying to keep the gunboats from going down the Cumberland River.
The Lewises were Union sympathizers, at least Ma and Pa’s ancestors, and Ma described the hardships of those women who stayed on the farms and it was truly terrible.
I would sit by Ma in the old swing on her front porch and listen to her stories about the guerillas and Southern sympathizers who terrorized the women left at home. When I studied the Civil War in school I was way up on all the other kids because I had a great historian to teach me. Ma was the reason Memorial Day was always my favorite holiday.