Ashley T. Evans photo
In the U.S., the tradition of placing flowers on the graves of war veterans was annually done on Decoration Day. This day later became Memorial Day.
Each year several generations of my family pile into pick-up trucks and travel back in time to a place many refer to as the “backwoods,” or “the hills.” My granny called it home.
In Granny’s day, the creek was the lifeblood of the community. Houses were situated near the creek, and children were expected to carry water back to the houses several times a day. Whitewater rapids transported enormous logs into town which were used to build homes and businesses. The crystal clear water also held tiny nuggets of gold few ever found. The creek provided fish to many and offered a cool drink to weary travelers. But today, in our stressed out world we don’t seem to need the creek for food or water. We need her for escape …
The caravan of pickup trucks presses higher and soon reaches the place where tubing is prohibited. The sound of the creek drowns out the rumbling of rusty tailpipes. I close my eyes, inhale deeply and lift my face toward the heavens. Even though my eyes are closed, my mind can see the lush green canopy of leaves and I smile.
Beside me my aunt says, “No place in the world smells as good as this.”
My mind replays prior years when as a child I piled in the back of an older, rustier pick-up. In those days you could dangle your legs from the back of a truck without getting pulled over and issued a citation. My heart longs for those times again, times when my aunt and I sang songs at the top of our lungs and laughed as we tried to pick leaves from low hanging tree limbs.
Today we dodge the same limbs and keep a watchful eye as our grandchildren reach toward the lush, emerald branches.
I can’t help but wonder: where did the time go?
This year the weather is beautiful and bugs are few. Mountain laurel is in full bloom. The trail is littered with the white, umbrella-like blooms of this native shrub. I smile and watch a breeze pluck blooms and spin them softly to the forest floor.
Dad interrupts my sightseeing as he yells out the window, “Pick up your feet!”
“There’s a hog waller up ahead!” he quickly added.
Dad was about to drive across a large mud hole dug out by a wild boar, and if we tailgate-riding passengers didn’t pick up our feet as we crossed, the mud would suck the shoes off our feet.
“Hang on!” Dad yells as the truck enters the mud.
Our laughter echoes through the valley as the truck bounces from side to side. The muddy water sounds like ocean waves crashing as the wheels disappear in the mud. Not a single shoe is lost during the crossing. It’s a good day.
Overhead the hemlocks are losing the battle with the wooly adelgid. The once majestic trees now stand anorexic, only a few green branches remain and are bravely fighting to survive the microscopic beetles’ attack. The limbs that remain are covered with thousands of tiny, white, blood-sucking sacks. The smell of the forest has changed. Something is missing. The honey scent of mountain laurel is still there, but the heady hemlock is less pungent. I wonder if the hemlocks will survive another season and welcome me home next year.
The truck stops.
I carry flowers made of paper, just like my Aunt Edna used to make, to the crest of the mountain where we will decorate the graves of family members buried in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The hike to the cemetery is strenuous. Even the youngest family member needs to stop along the way either to rest or beg the nearest adult to carry them to the cemetery. During the ascent, Jack-in-the-Pulpit and trillium flowers greet me. As does the rose bush my great grandmother planted where the church and school house used to stand. Again I smile. There is still something left of her in these woods, even if I am the only one in the family who remembers her.
From behind me Uncle Wes says, “I don’t know how in the world they buried folk up here on top of this mountain.”
I hear these familiar words and smile. Here it comes, I think.
I bend and retie my shoelace, even though it doesn’t need retying. This story is one of many I hear each year that fills me with a sense of belonging. I chastise myself for forgetting my cassette recorder.
“Law, I remember Momma telling about when they tried to bury my uncle Cleo,” he says from behind me. “Lawsie, Uncle Cleo always was an unlucky cuss. He had the misfortune to die in February, and don’t you know that was the year of the big ice storm. Folks from back here tried to get his casket up the hillside to the cemetery.”
Uncle Wes stops to spit and wipe his mouth, which I know is an excuse to rest, because this man has remarkable spitting capabilities that never require him to slow down, or wipe his chin for that matter.
“But the mule couldn’t make it up the hill,” he continued with another spit. “No sir, take two steps forward and stumble she would.”
“Law, the ice was thick, and you know that was only the mule around, so Uncle Cleo had to wait here on this hillside till spring thaw to be buried.”
I take Uncle Wes’ hand and we climb higher.
Inside the cemetery the graves are simple, much like the ways were during the decedents’ time. The tombstones are small and unassuming. A few tombstones have faded and no longer reveal names, their scratched out markings worn away by wind, rain, and snow. Some tombstones are broken, and some have vanished altogether as have any memory of the loved ones who once called this mountain home.
Adults distribute flowers to the children who, in turn, decorate the graves of those they will never know. They drop petals on the graves with wild abandon. I hurry to capture each precious moment on film. Each year the number of family members who return to this place dwindles. The world has changed. We all barely have time to breathe, much less take a weekend off to travel to the graves of people we don’t remember. How quickly the deceased are forgotten and replaced with other priorities.
I wonder, will the children who are sprinkling petals today learn to love the mountains like I do, or will this place be seen as a goldmine for recreation or development? I shake these thoughts from my head and recall a conversation I had with my Granny years ago.
Long before death stole Granny’s last breath, she made yearly trips back to her home place. When age and arthritis stole her ability to hike the mountain, she still made the trip, only she sat in the truck and peered out the truck window at her vanishing home place. I imagine the pain she felt to see the orchard she once tended as a child was overgrown, and the creek her father fished was filled with debris. With the homes torn down and chimneys broken, the tombstones were the only remaining thing Granny had.
I remember Granny grabbing my hand and squeezing it tightly. “Promise me you’ll always come here,” she said fiercely. “Promise me you won’t forget the sacrifice this family made.”
What a silly thing to say, I thought. This is my home, as it was yours.
I placed my hand on hers and smiled. “Granny I’ve been coming here since I was two years old. Only death can keep me away.”
The lines on her face softened, her trouble instantly forgotten by my reassurance that this place was as sacred to me as it was to her. She was worried people would forget this place. In her wisdom she somehow knew that people would get too busy to return, or worse, take this sacred place her family once owned for granted and not respect the sacrifices her family had made. As I looked through the camera lens at the children decorating the graves, I was filled with the same fear.
With the graves decorated, I gathered the past, present, and future generations together for a photograph. A soft wind scattered the petals across the freshly decorated graves. Overhead billowy clouds hovered, and I silently prayed that this place would always remain sacred and matter to someone long after I leave this earth.
Renea Winchester is a native North Carolinian who splits her time between the mountains of North Carolina and Atlanta, Ga., where she resides with her husband, children, and a small flock of chickens. Her work has appeared in Birds and Blooms, and in 2006, she won the Appalachian Writers Association Award.