Memorial Day, or as Ma called it, Decoration Day, was an important day for Ma and it stands out in my memory as an important day. Ma and I took flowers down to the family cemetery, which was a few hundred yards from the house. The following story is as Ma told it to me.
Several stout men would carry the casket from the front room of the house down to the cemetery or graveyard, as Ma called it. That little graveyard had about a dozen graves and all the tombstones were very old since no one had been buried there for many years.
First Ma and I would clean all the twigs and leaves from the graves. Ma would fill the jars on each grave with water and then put some flowers in each jar from the big bucket of flowers. As she got to each grave, she would tell me something about that person. There was Washington Delaney Hall and his wife, Rachel who were my great-great grandparents. She told me how each one had died and how old they were. Many of the engravings were not readable. For instance, Rachel fell dead while snapping green beans on the front porch and she had been barely middle-aged. Delaney lived to be a very old man. Little Mary, Pa’s baby sister, was only three when her grown brother accidentally hit her in the head with an axe while cutting wood. When Ma described that death, I always cried. Another couple was Pa’s parents, Caroline and Thomas Lewis. Thomas had been a scout in the Union Army Cavalry during the Civil War. Also buried there were three of their children. I learned the family history at this little graveyard. I have a copy of the family history but learning it from Ma down at the old family graveyard was far more interesting. Incidentally, that little graveyard was part of the farm, which the government bought in preparing for Barkley Dam, and now can’t be reached.
I remember the big portrait of my ancestor, Thomas Lewis, in the old house front room. His eyes were very dark blue and seemed to follow me to all points of the room. I had trouble associating that dark haired, bearded, handsome man with the Thomas Lewis Ma talked about at his grave. When I was very small, I was afraid to go into that room by myself.
Ma told me so many interesting stories, which are not in schoolbooks. She talked of the big battle at Dover, Tennessee between the Southern soldiers entrenched on the bank of the Cumberland River and the Union gunboats trying to break the blockade. My great grandmother, Caroline, sat on the front porch of that old house and could hear the big guns from far away.
I have some copies of some very interesting letters from my Ma’s parents to each other during that Great War. They were Delilah and John Etheldred Hall. One thing that is so interesting is that they were truly love letters. They had one baby before he went to war and much was written about baby Sam. He was not very well educated but she had a good education and wrote well. In one letter, you could tell he was drunk and very homesick. She begged him to quit drinking and gambling in one letter and he really did quit those two vices after he came home from the war. In one letter, he said that he would give anything for some of her cornbread and buttermilk. While reading those letters, I thought that things don’t really change. Soldiers still write longingly to their loved ones.
Placing flowers on graves in a Southern cemetery started in 1866 when some women in Mississippi put flowers on graves of Union and Southern soldiers alike. This idea soon traveled throughout the war-ravaged country. Did you know that over 200,000 men died in the Civil War and many more were crippled for life?
This holiday in May, the last Monday in May, means different things to different people but it means stories told by my sweet grandmother in a little graveyard in Lyon County, Kentucky.
Please feel free to call me at 270-522-3632 with questions and comments.