GENDUSA COLUMN: Where our history is written in stone

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, June 9, 2021

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On the first Sunday in June in Monterey, Tennessee, where I was born, citizens celebrate Decoration Day. There are two main cemeteries in this small town, and most of us whose heritage dates to the pioneer days honor the remains of those we love by decorating their graves with flowers.

When my parents and brother were still living, we tried our best to visit on Decoration Day no matter where we resided. Every June, as we walked among the headstones, Dad would tell us stories regarding uncles, aunts, friends, or grandparents as tears fell from their memory. 

When many relatives were still living, we held large reunions complete with picnics after placing flowers atop graves in both cemeteries. More old tales were recounted as laughter filled the air.

Before we left to travel to our various homes, we would drive by the old graveyards and view them alive with color as flowers adorned nearly every grave.  It was a sight to behold.

After years passed, Daddy’s stories were silenced, reunions ended, and grief replaced joy because most of my family was gone. As a result, a sense of loneliness and grief began to creep into my soul.

You know how God has a way of always working things out? Unfortunately, we often don’t recognize his plan, but sometimes it is as clear as the raindrop that fell Decoration Sunday on my Great Grandmother’s grave in Monterey.

After I began writing six years ago, I was delighted when I heard from relatives and friends in places I once lived as a child. They were from Tennessee’s hills, valleys, and cities to LaGrange, Georgia, where I moved when I was 15. I love communicating with these precious folks and sharing our memories of times together.

Since a few of my columns evolved around my heritage, I reconnected with some long-lost cousins and an entire town. I was only four when we moved away from our Monterey family. However, in the past year, a deep affection developed with this mountain town, where it doesn’t matter how old you were when you left;  they still welcome you home.

One of those cousins is Bobby. When I hear him talk or watch his blue eyes twinkle while he tells many a story, I am reminded of Dad. Bobby says I talk a lot, and I do, but then so does he, and I thankfully realize the old silence is now broken.

On a prior visit to Monterey earlier this year, I met Patsy. She is another of those long-lost relatives. Our great grandparents buried two children and a grandchild due to the Spanish flu epidemic between 1918 to 1920. Patsy’s grandmother, Sallie Belle, and my grandfather, Sallie’s brother, succumbed to the flu, as well as my Dad’s little sister, Bertha Nell.

“Lynn, I have never been able to find my grandmother’s grave,” Patsy announced soon after I met her. 

“Well, I am sure it is in the older Whittaker cemetery. Maybe her headstone is missing, but I feel positive she is there.” I replied after she told me the story.  However, it bothered me that my great aunt Sallie Belle’s gravesite was missing.

Raindrops started to fall as I walked with cousin Bobby among the headstones on Sunday morning. We put flowers on family graves in the old cemetery and looked for little Bertha Nell’s lamb topped stone. I finally found it and laid dainty yellow flowers beside her. Bobby and I were puzzled about why she was buried in a different location than her parents. 

I noticed there was a worn monument beside her that one could barely read.   When I touched the stone, I ran my fingers across the words which spelled Sallie Belle, who died in 1918. I called Patsy immediately, and joy began to replace a haunting sadness.

Near where they are buried, Sue takes donations to maintain the cemetery grounds under a green awning.

As I wrote my check, Sue asked, “Are you Lynn, the one who writes?” Then, after responding affirmatively, she began to tell me about another sweet uncle of mine, and the stories started to whirl just as my father’s tales once did in the mountains on a June Sunday. 

“I have a renewed interest in cemeteries!” Bobby texted after I returned to Georgia.  I responded, “Cemeteries are where our histories are written in stone.” But, as I typed those words, I also thought, it is where the lost are found, where stories spin around flowers as families gather, and where joyous memories replace sorrow.

God always has a way of working things out. Have you noticed?