The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Decoration Day

By Margie Moon Coburn © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

It's called "Memorial Day" now and it's time of celebration moved to whatever conveniently makes for another long weekend for working Americans.

I can remember when it was called "Decoration Day" and was on May 30th every year. It was set aside as a day when the dead were remembered and their final resting places revisited by those who missed them.

It is that revisiting I recall. Preparation for Decoration Day began several days before as we all prepared for the long walk to the family cemetery, for there were very few cars then. It would consume our whole day, this revisiting. Comfortable shoes and clothing were donned and always a hat to protect us from the sun. The prettiest flowers were gathered from our yard - Iris and Lilies and whatever spring flowers were at their best. Also, the prettiest roses from our many bushes were gathered and wrapped in newspapers to be carried in our arms all the way. A hoe was taken, and a hatchet. Best was a picnic lunch to be enjoyed along the way.

Along the way, that's what I loved. The leader of this yearly trek was my grandmother. She must have been in her late 60's when I began to make the Decoration Day trips with her. Past the coal miners' homes, past the railroad tracks, past the boarding house at the edge of town, and onto the winding soft dirt road uphill all the way now to the top of Raleigh Mountain where lay our beloved kin. This is where we children gleefully got barefoot and relished the pure freedom of it. It was this part of the trip I liked most. Into the woods where the smell was good and the air was cool and lively with sounds of its own children.

Granny knew the birch trees and she'd break off small branches for each of us children and we would eat the tender bark off as we went along. And mountain-tea berries were another treat Granny could spot all along the way. We appreciated the red berries and the leaves themselves were also good and juicy and the taste lingered pleasantly on our tongue.

We picked honeysuckles, dogwood, and other wild flowers on the way up to the cemetery and when we reached the top we had a bountiful blanket of love to put on each grave. There was Grandpa, and some aunts, and little Karen who died in infancy, and then Granny always cleaned off her own place next to Grandpa. We took such pride and loving care as we dug weeds and reshaped the mounds and placed our flowers.

Coming back down the mountain we always digressed just a little and went over to visit Mrs. Meadows, a friend of Granny's. Mrs. Meadows always had cold buttermilk from her springhouse and butter she had made herself in a wood churn and shaped with wood butter printers. She always had something good from her oven to spread that butter on and her kitchen always smelled real good and the smell drifted out onto the back porch where it was polite for children to stay.

Decoration Day was an important event, and I am sorry it is gone. Now we buy a wreath and place it on a grave. And the cemetery no longer needs our care because it is "maintained" by somebody who gets paid for it. I am glad that I lived in a small part of that time when not only our nation, but each individual family really honored their dead. And by doing so quietly strengthened, as love is prone to do, the gentle living.