My grandmother always referred to the day as Decoration Day and she always cleaned the graves in the little family cemetery behind the house on the Lewis farm. If I was at their house at the time, I went with her and helped to pick up twigs and she cut the little bit of grass with shears. Then she put flowers on every grave in the fruit jars that always sat beside each headstone. As she cleaned each grave, she talked to me of that person since she had known all but the two oldest who were Halls, her and Pa’s great grandparents. My great grandfather, Thomas Lewis and his wife, Caroline, were buried there, as well as three of their children. It was at that little graveyard that I learned that Thomas Lewis had been a scout in the Union Army. I learned about little Mary Lewis who, at three, had accidentally been killed and I actually shed a tear or two when Ma told about that terrible accident. That is when I learned about Thomas Lewis, the soldier who rode his horse through the war years and came home with a kidney disease caused from riding so many years. I then could associate the soldier with the portrait of the man with the piercing eyes and dark beard. My grandmother was a great storyteller and she made all those long dead family members seem to be alive.
Then we trudged to the Ramey graveyard about a mile away. She carried the bucket of water with flowers to put on the grave of her “dear sister”, Susie. As I grew up, I was with Ma less and finally she was unable make her trips to the cemeteries, but those early memories and her vivid descriptions of those long dead linger yet.
When I read in school about the Civil War, I already had many facts, which I gleaned from Ma’s talks. She told me about her mother-in-law sitting on the old front porch listening to the big guns at Dover, Tennessee where the Union gunboats were trying to get by the Southern guns, which were entrenched on the shore. She told about the Southern soldiers, who were firing the guns and got caught between the gunboats and Union soldiers who slipped up behind them. They ran through the country, some even going as far as the houses along the Cumberland River near the Lewis farm.
I have read, and made copies of, letters from my great grandfather, John E. Hall and his wife, Delilah. I found it so strange that each had kept all those letters. John was a supply sergeant with the Union Army and came home unhurt. In one letter, he remarked that “if only I could have some of your wonderful cornbread and cold buttermilk”. In his picture, he was so handsome and dashing in his uniform.
Ma told of the guerillas and Southern soldiers and sympathizers who raided the home and stole everything they had. The two Lewis women and their children, plus an old woman who had lived with the family for years, helping in the house and with the children, lived in that Lewis house through the war. Those history books that I studied didn’t have a thing on Ma with her wonderful memory and her ability to bring those stories to life.
Strangely, I remember the flowers that were blooming on Decoration Day were mock orange, roses, lilies and honeysuckle.
Unfortunately, this Memorial Day has lost its original meaning for most of us but, for me, I will remember that wonderful old grandmother and her decorating the graves.
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