It’s May in the Ozarks. The mountains are green and lush. The creeks and bayous are running full. And families from the communities that dot the hills and hollers are gathering at local cemeteries to enjoy a moment of prayer, a bit of gospel music and a whole lot of food and happy memories in a ritual of remembrance known as Decoration Day.
How did a couple of Coastside Slackers stumble across this decidedly Southern tradition? You can bet no one holds picnics in early May up the road from Montara in Colma, the Bay Area necropolis known as the “City of the Silent.”
M-Man’s family roots run deep in the red clay of the Arkansas Ozarks. He visited often as a child. He loved the rocky bluffs and leafy hillsides, the rushing creeks and dense forests, and the accents and conversational colloquialisms that seemed exotic to a kid who was raised way up yonder in the flat lands of suburban Chicago. He could have done without the ticks, chiggers and oppressive summer humidity, but those long-ago family trips hold many special memories of people, places and events – and cemeteries. Lots of cemeteries.
M-Man and The Geek made their first trip in a long time to this beautiful slice of “flyover” America this month to honor the memory of his parents with about 50 members of the extended family. It was a special weekend. Dad died last fall and Mom’s remains had been perched on his closet shelf for nearly six years awaiting burial at Owens Cemetery. The remains of both now rest side-by-side on a grassy knoll less than a mile from Dad’s birthplace in Bullfrog Valley — the circle of life and all that. For Dad, anyway. Mom was born in Nebraska. But no worries, always the team player, she had endorsed the Owens plan.
Our first experience with Decoration Day came early in our marriage. We drove down from St. Louis, Mo., for a long weekend with Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw.
Sunday dawned preternaturally early and Maw-Maw informed us that after services at Dover United Methodist Church we would head to the Decoration Day potluck at Owens Cemetery. Say what? We had anticipated church and an afternoon nap. The Geek cast a glance M-Man’s way. “A potluck?” her striking gray-blue eyes flashed doubtfully. “In a cemetery!?” her furrowed brow added, with a touch of incredulity. M-Man shrugged helplessly. It was Sunday. Maw-maw and Paw-paw were in charge.
We arrived at Owens shortly before noon beneath bright sunshine and blue skies. Owens was packed with scores of Decoration Day celebrants, some sporting Sunday attire and virtually all of them related to M-Man in some direct or wildly circuitous genealogical fashion. Many had shown up in work clothes a day prior to dress up Owens, mowing the grass, pruning the native greenery and festooning newly polished headstones with thousands of spring blooms. It was beautiful. We were charmed. And that was before a small boy and girl raced by hand-in-hand through the monuments, the long ribbon in the girl’s straw bonnet flowing behind her. We melted. And it wasn’t the humidity.
Beneath the pavilion, we partook of the prayers and the gospel and then bellied up to a bench loaded with fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, Jell-O salads and cream pies. It was a long time ago, but I’m betting there was a red velvet cake involved. We washed it down with sweet tea and lemonade, and made it last by swapping stories and memories in a frenzy of oral tradition. It was exhausting.
This year’s Decoration Day experience was a bit different. It was calmer and more personal. We did attend church at Dover United Methodist, where Page out-of-towners nearly doubled the size of the congregation. And we did enjoy a potluck, though we held it at the roomy Airbnb rented by M-Man’s Big Sis. The main course was roughly 10 pounds of Fat Daddy’s pulled pork and chicken and two gallons of barbecue sauce left uneaten after the catered picnic that had followed my parents’ memorial service two days earlier. The extended family did a pretty good job of whittling down the picnic leftovers. Mom would have approved.
So, with a late start, much of the Decoration Day fanfare at Owens at subsided by the time we arrived. The cemetery was in full flower. And a few families remained, the adults resting in the shade amid the markers while a handful of children played. M-Man walked to the newest monument amid spring humidity that hung lightly in the air, enjoying the warm sun on his face. He strolled past the graves of Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw. Aunt Nita. Uncle Bert and Aunt Audra. Aunt Eunice. Uncle Dan and Aunt Clara. And so many others who had made those childhood visits to Arkansas so special. It was a little sad. But it was mostly sweet, with lots of good memories.
As with most of his visits to Owens, M-Man stared hard at the stone that bears the name he shares with his great grandfather, Dan Page. Word is that he was a tough but kind mountain man who worked hard and cared for his family. M-man’s Dad often recalled that as a little boy he and his “Grandpa Dan” were pals. Not a bad legacy.
And for M-Man, that grave in particular serves as a thought-provoking reminder of the inevitable – or what The Geek likes to call “the ultimate slacking opportunity.”
*This post has been updated to correct time frame of our first experience with Decoration Day.