Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day and still is in the south. It was begun after the Civil War. Our family to this day goes to family cemeteries to decorate the graves of those who have gone on to another life and space. It's somehow comforting to our family to take the time to honor these loved ones. I wrote the beginning of a novel called Family Reunion which begins in a cemetery. It's been difficult to write because the stories of my mother's family history is not always happy or endearing. As a matter of fact it is troublesome and unbelievable at times. I once told my cousin I was ficitionalizing the novel. With laughter he told me to just write the truth. No one would believe it anyway. Words are infinitely easier to create when you take the truth and embellish them with colorful lies and mysterious circumstances. Here is just a taste.
All families have skeletons in the closet. The Cook family wallowed in that reality. When the nearby neighbors, bootleggers that lived down the dusty, Tennessee path some referred to as a road, wouldn’t let their young’uns play anywhere near the Cook offspring, people in town just assumed they would never be any count. Maybe they were right. Then again, maybe the Cooks were just ignorant, Tennessee, white trash that just needed a little help.
Even as a child, Annabelle was aware of the sagas that surrounded her family. She’d heard her mother, Annie, whispering about one sister’s secret life or the brother that had another family in Nashville. Granddad Ewell apparently had lived a colorful, if not sorted past, although Annabelle wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. At least she didn’t on that hot summer day of the first Cook family reunion. The year was 1960.
Annabelle, for the first time in her eight years began to speculate, as only an innocent might, about the secrets. She watched the Cook family flutter around her, each louder and more animated than the other. The women laughed and insulted each other. The men smoked cigars or ready-rolled cigarettes as they leaned back in their lawn chairs, eyeing the children playing tag. The smell of cold fried chicken and coleslaw clung to the air as Annabelle fanned flies away from the table. She watched Montez, her older cousin; wipe her forehead of the sweaty heat that threatened to drip in the bowl of cucumbers and onions. The smell of vinegar made Montez’s large, brown eyes water as she too began to shoo the flies. Plates of steaming corn on the cob, fried okra, sliced tomatoes and homemade pickles were covered with dish towels. Their stomachs ached for just a pinch of the cornbread and biscuits that Aunt Boo sat on the table next to the pecan and apple pies. The coconut cake and fresh peaches were too much of a temptation for the beautiful Aunt Boo. She ran a finger along the surface of the cake and shoved it in her mouth. With a serene “hmmm” she smiled at the girls and turned back to the other Cook women for further instructions.
The Cooks gathered in a small one acre park that joined the Lone Oak Cemetery. The small park once belonged to the Gilliam family in 1948. It was just cow pasture then. When Mr. Gilliam got in a bad way with his tuberculosis his wife sold the acre to the cemetery to have medicine money. Now a flower garden bloomed. A large pavilion built for suppers held during the week of decoration in May now had a barbeque pit. Families came from all over, some as far away as St. Louis to place artificial flowers
on the graves of loved ones.
Some of Annabelle’s family now rested in Lone Oak. There was Aunt Sissy, the mysterious aunt she’d never known except through stories. Ozro, her mother’s baby brother who’d died unexpectedly at a young age, also rested in this peaceful place. Mammy, Annabelle’s grandmother, liked to point out all the graves from the War of Northern Aggression. “Confederate soldiers,” she’d say in her whiney, crackled voice. “Good men. Don’t ever marry a damn Yankee, Annabelle!”
“I won’t, Mammy!” Annabelle certainly didn’t want to be on her grandmother’s bad side. “I promise.”
But on this day, the day of the first Cook family reunion, Annabelle would fall in love with the past, bathe in the confusion of why grownups do the things they do and plot her own path based on the mistakes of her family. Mammy took Annabelle’s hand and led her away from the picnic tables of food, instructing Montez with a crooked finger to cover up the cornbread. The old woman carried a great deal of weight even though she was only one hundred pounds sopping wet. For some reason everyone just obeyed the boney woman with the thin wiry hair covered by a brown hairnet that made the strands look grayer than they actually were. As the two entered into the cemetery Annabelle wondered why at certain times of the year the graves were smothered in flowers, mostly artificial ones that came from the dime store in Lewisburg. But there were a few graves, like Aunt Sissy’s, that had a big, beautiful peony bush growing near the end. Purple iris bloomed, almost with wild abandonment on each side of the narrow headstone that bore a small picture of Aunt Sissy. Mammy clicked her tongue in disgust as she ran her hand over the picture feeling the bump a pellet gun had made to distort the image of her favorite child.
“You loved her a lot, huh, Mammy.” Annabelle didn’t realize how ridiculous her comment sounded as her grandmother looked at her then up at the billowy clouds moving slowly across the sky. She was just trying to make conversation, excited that Mammy had chosen her as the escort into the cemetery. Usually Annabelle was ignored. There were school pictures of all the other grandchildren throughout her grandparents’ home, but not of Annabelle or her brother. She once had wondered out loud about that to her mother, but never got a straight answer. But today she’d been chosen to be the special one, the one Mammy wanted at her side.
“Let’s sit a spell.” Mammy creaked out the words as she made her way to the park bench sitting under a shade tree. “I’m tuckered out,” she sighed. “All that yah, yah from yo momma and her sisters gets a body down. Whew,” she exclaimed as Annabelle gingerly eased down next to her and tried to stare nonchalantly up at the sky like it didn’t matter she had her grandmother all to herself. “Now,” she breathed deeply then let out every ounce of air as if it had been bottled up for eternity. “Tell me ‘bout you,” she demanded in such a quiet voice the little girl looked startled and shook her head nervously with a shrug.
“Nothin’ to know, Mammy.” Annabelle smiled hopefully; as she cautiously slid her hand into her grandmother’s and felt a sensation of warmth as Mammy squeezed the little hand playfully. “Tell me ‘bout you! Tell me ‘bout the old days.”
Surprised at the request the old woman laughed and nodded as she reached out and slipped an arm around the young girl with the sun streaked hair of gold. She wasn’t the prettiest of her grandchildren, but certainly the most inquisitive. “Ahh, what ya want to know ‘bout that old stuff? Ain’t happy stories in this ole life. Why yo mamma would skin me if I told ya all she did as a young’un, sure ‘nough. She weren’t no angel.” Mammy waited for a response from the little girl but only saw confusion and curiosity.
Even though the breeze lifted the edge of the old woman’s dress, she felt the need to use the cardboard fan from Garr Funeral Home. Fanning briskly, she looked in the distance across the fields on the other side of the road. The smell of freshly cut hay, rotting flowers and cow manure brought back the memories, the stories little Annabelle wanted to hear. Now was as good a time as any she reckoned. Better know about her momma now rather than later. Same went for those other young’uns she’d birthed. The only two she’d really wanted was the oldest, Claude and Sissy. The girl now lay dead of some disease she’d never heard of until it happened to her child. The others were conceived without love, without feeling of any kind. More mouths to feed with a worthless husband who couldn’t hold a job for more than a couple of months because of his womanizing, gambling and drinking ways. A hard life served to her on a bed of regret and sorrow. The laughter of the family drifted on the breeze making everything sound right. Her small eyes that sometimes wavered back and forth without her control, went again to the little girl sitting next to her. Out of all her grandchildren, this one seemed to care. Why, she didn’t understand. It wasn’t like she treated her any different than the rest of them.
“I’m gonna tell ya a story.”
“A true one. It’s ‘bout us Cooks. Sure ya want to hear it? It ain’t one of those nicey, nice stories like you hears in school now.”
“I’m ready, Mammy. Tell me ‘bout the family. Maybe I’ll write it down someday in a book.”
Mammy laughed like a wicked witch. “A book. Now wouldn’t that be somethin’! Maybe Hollywood will turn it into a movie. I want that Clark Gable to play your Uncle Claude. You tell’em that if I ain’t ‘round.”
“Yes, mam. I will. Promise.”
“Okay,” she said patting the little hand that now rested on her skinny leg beneath the cotton skirt of her blue dress. She reached up to violently swap at a fly before letting it fall back down on Annabelle’s sweaty fingers.
“We was poor. I mean really poor, Annabelle. Poor people has poor ways and I’m tellin’ ya some of the colored folks had it better than us. Now that’s poor.”
Annabelle didn’t understand any of that. But she sat quietly hoping to discover why her mother acted the way she did sometimes. Why wasn’t her daddy allowed to come to this reunion? Would she find out why Aunt Boo and Aunt Tipsy fought so loudly over someone named Willy Carl. Her young eyes looked back over her shoulder where Montez continued to fan the flies from the food. Annabelle felt like a box of answers was about to be opened for her.
Little girls have no way of knowing that some stories stay with you for a life time. Some answers only bring more questions. It wouldn’t be until years later that Annabelle realized stories could gently nudge you down a crooked path toward a future. But this story, the first of many, would haunt and follow her into the next century until it was time to tell her own daughter the truth about the Cooks of Marshall County.