Decoration Day

When I mentioned to my editor that I was heading to East Tennessee for Decoration Day and hoped to leave early to get a jump on the traffic, she gave me a puzzled look.

“Decoration Day? What’s that?” she asked, knowing that we had just enjoyed a three-day weekend in celebration of Memorial Day.

I explained that Memorial Day used to be celebrated on May 30, and that it had been known as Decoration Day. The name “officially” changed in the 1960’s when President Johnson decreed the last Monday in May to be a federal holiday known as “Memorial Day,” meant to honor and remember the men and women who perished while in service to their country. Tradition is very strong in the mountains and valleys of East Tennessee, and my Clinch Mountain relatives still celebrate Decoration Day on the Sunday following Memorial Day.

Unlike other parts of Tennessee, those from East Tennessee do not celebrate the Confederate Decoration Day, which is held on June 3. East Tennesseans were staunchly Unionist during the Civil War, and did not secede with the rest of the state. I’ve traced many of my East Tennessee ancestors to the Civil War, and not one of them wore the grey.

Most of my ancestors are buried in small family cemeteries. Some are attached to tidy little church houses; some are perched on hillsides within a ring of trees; still others sit tucked away in the corners of farmers’ fields – family land now in the possession of someone else. Regardless of their location, the cemeteries are made to look their very best for Decoration Day – grass is mown, weeds are pulled, and the headstones are cleaned and polished before flowers are placed. Tiny, ancient cemeteries with only a handful of weather-worn stones get the same royal treatment as the church cemeteries. The path to one diminutive family graveyard was fraught with weeds and poison ivy on the trek up the hillside, but inside the worn picket fence the space was clean and tidy.

This year the weather forecast was calling for thunderstorms on Decoration Day, so we went to the cemeteries on Saturday instead, although most still planned to gather on Sunday for the traditional dinner on the ground at the little church next to the largest of the family cemeteries.

I took along an old, framed picture of long dead ancestors that I hoped someone could help me identify. The picture had always hung in my grandparent’s house, and when they passed away the picture went to my Dad. When he died, it became mine, but I didn’t know who they were. I’d already asked Dad’s remaining siblings about it, but the ancestors had died long before any of them were born, and they couldn’t recall their names. All I knew was what Dad had told me, “These men are your grandma’s uncles.”

Grandma had a lot of uncles – which of the twelve were they? As we walked around the cemetery, we chatted with family and strangers alike (for really there were no strangers – a few minutes of talking usually revealed yet another branch in the family tree) and showed the picture to them, to no avail. Most were simply too young to know.

We were close to giving up and I’d already put the picture back into the car when my cousin Bruce said, “Well I believe that old woman over there was married to a Cook. Let’s go see if she knows anything.” We spoke to her and she agreed to have a look at the picture. When I showed it to her she said, “Well they’re definitely Cooks, but I don’t know which ones.” The photo had created quite a bit of interest by this time, and soon a few more had gathered around to have a look. One was a woman about my age who had been cleaning off the picnic tables in preparation for Sunday’s dinner on the ground. (It’s not literally on the ground, it’s on picnic tables – but it is on the church ground, hence the name) She took one look at the picture and excitedly pointed to the man on the left. “That’s grandpa! I’d know that picture anywheres! We’ve got a smaller one like that and he’s with grandma in it! That is Rev. Isaac Cook!”

I was over the moon to finally know who at least one of the uncles was – and we were standing less than 20 feet from his grave at the time. We got to talking excitedly with each other, which piqued the interest of others in the cemetery, who came over to see what the fuss was about. One of those who came over was a 94 year old woman who said she’d like to look at it too. We held up the picture so that she could see it, and she pointed to the man on the right and said, “Well I do believe that is John Cook. Them boys all favored one another, but I am near certain it’s John. He always was a most handsome feller…”

Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm  Leave a Comment