I have decided that this week I will take off from continuing the “book” (America Fulfilling Its Promise) I have been writing online. I want to follow up on the piece I wrote for Memorial Day. I feel that not militarizing Memorial Day is an important topic as is honoring our ancestors.
On Memorial Day, my family and I decided that it was important to “go to our family graves.” We waited until the afternoon and started on the two-plus hour drive to the cemetery. We decided that one of us would stay home with the old dog as it was too hot for him to sit in the car.
As we drove, the car was filled with sharing and laughter. The countryside was magnificent! There was so many shades of green (my favorite color) that only Arkansas can produce this time of year. The green of course was seasonal with splashes of wild flowers.
Along the way, I commented about familiar sights and my times spent with our big family. We drove by the Illinois River where we had family picnics, Grandpa made homemade ice-cream and “fished” for crawdads, dug mussels and augmented our feasts with catfish.
We drove through the small town where Mother and Daddy had gone to school and graduated high school, grandpa had a country store, and the other kids my age and I had had the “run of the town” except for going near the highway or the railroad tracks. Many times, I have realized how those feelings of freedom spiced with safety have influenced who I am today. The whole town took care of us!
“They” had widened the highway and we missed the turnoff for the spur where the church stood. Yet, we could see it, gleaming from a distance as we drove by and had to circle back.
“There it is, I see it!” someone said. My heart filled with joy, pride and a sense of peace. The church is called “Baptist Mission” and was the first church built in the Oklahoma territory by the Cherokee at the end of The Trail of Tears. Mother was always very proud that our family was buried there and she came home to be buried there after she had died from an aneurism in Idaho on her way to Oregon. Of course she would come home to Baptist Mission. That was where she belonged.
As we drove up, I was touched with how neat and fresh the church looked. To me, it was always “the church in the wildwood.” The graveyard looked clean and well-kept with many “flowers” of remembrance. There were two “new” plaques telling the story of The Trail of Tears of the Cherokee people who had been put in concentration camps and forcibly marched across the country in winter. Over four thousand, mostly elderly and children, had died on that march.
I always get a bit miffed when someone says that slavery is the worst blight on the nation’s history. Why compare? This nation has done many things we cannot be proud of and they were all terrible. There is no “worst.”
Fools Crow, the great spiritual leader of the Lakota Sioux once said to me, “This nation has not kept one treaty that was made with the Native People of this land. It will never be the great nation it can be until it keeps its ‘word’ with the native people here.” I have always kept those words close to my heart and like a recovering alcoholic, want us, as a nation, to admit our wrongs and make amends.
- Nations, like individuals, can never heal unless they admit their wrongs, apologize, and actively make amends. These are the kinds of things we need to concern ourselves with – not raping the earth.
Tears came to my eyes as I looked at the clean, white little church, the big, beautiful, colorful and informative plaques, and as usual, through years of memory the cows in the nearby pasture found us “curious” and called out to us. I was “home” as were my relatives buried here.
The graves were easy to find as they were nestled under a big old Catalpa tree to our left as we walked in. There was a young couple tending to their family graves nearby.
We found “our graves” and I went over to speak with the couple as the others went to get our supplies for cleaning the lichen off the gravestones. We had not been there for a while.
My conversation with the young people was very satisfying. They told me about their family members buried there. Then, they said something like, “Yes, we are taking care of our family graves today. This is our last cemetery as they are scattered in several graveyards. It is what we do. We take care of our family graves. That’s what our family does.”
I felt a surge of love for this young couple – a sense of identity – a sense of knowing. They had been raised right.
“Yes,” I said softly to myself. “That’s what our family does.”
My mother’s gravestone was the worst. It was so covered with lichen that we could hardly read the name. We went after it with water, Clorox, brushes, and scrapers. My great Aunt Ida’s needed some cleaning – the grave was sinking and the headstone was shifting. I was the only relative who lived nearby so I made a note to get that taken care of.
Mother had seen that her grandmother who raised her (her mother died at 18 in childbirth) and grandpa had a big tombstone. We cleaned it thoroughly as we did all the rest of the gravestones.
As we were finishing up, I wandered a bit and close by found the gravestone of a family who had been one of our best friends, the McCoy’s. Ethel and Mother had been close and whenever we returned to Oklahoma – which Mother insisted we did every year no matter where we were living – we spent time with the McCoy’s.
Our time with them was always so “sweet.” When we “arrived,” everything stopped and we went to the living room to “visit.” Their living room was always the same. It was a place for sitting and visiting. AND, they always had a quilt out to work on.
The quilt was “stretched” on a big quilt rack to be ready at a moment’s notice. The rack was held by four ropes attached to the ceiling. The ropes were wrapped around the ends of the rack to raise it up above everyone’s head when not in use. I have such fond memories of their unwinding the rack to make it the right height to sit and quilt while we visited.
The “women” – that included me – would sit and quilt, drink tea and visit for what seemed like ages. We were all fairly poor and never had “idle hands” even when visiting. It was good to take time and visit and it was good to be working on a much needed quilt made out of scraps while visiting.
I was quite young at the time. I certainly could not make the clean, even stitches the women could make and I was always able to participate with the women and the older girls. Annalu McCoy was older and better than I was and she patiently gave me “pointers.”
Years later, I wondered if they took out my stitches after I left. Clearly, my stitches were not “good quilting.” Somehow, I don’t believe they took my stitches out and my guess is later when the quilt was used they would say fondly, “See this part? That’s the part that little Elizabeth Anne Willey worked on.” That’s the way it was back then.
So, when I saw that their graves had not been “tended,” I called my tired, sweaty crew over and said, “These were our close friends. We need to tend their graves too.” And we all happily dug in.
By the time we finished, all of the herd of cows had checked us out and the sun was getting low in the sky.
- We all felt so good!!
We felt tired, peaceful, and right with the world. Our spirits had been renewed. Our bodies were tired and our souls were light. We were so very glad that we had taken this day for our family and ancestors.
As the sun was setting, four weary people drove over to the Cherokee Casino for the buffet.
There was a peacefulness and a closeness we felt as we headed into the casino. We sponged off in the rest room, changed clothes, got a nice round table in the non-smoking area and “sat a bit” before we went to get food. Even though we were starving, we sat a bit almost not wanting to disturb the peace we felt among us.
Then – we took as much time as we wanted to fill up our weary, tired bodies and savor what we had done with our day.
It was all good!