By Shawna Kenney,
'It'll be eight years on October 19th since Michael Paul died. Seven years this month for Frank, two years for Garnie in January, and 66 years since
Mommy died in November."
My husband's Grandma Emegene says "Mommy" like she is still a little girl, still 11, the age she was when her mother passed. Rich and I are in
Southern Virginia for Decoration Day, a tradition I'd not heard of until meeting him 12 years ago. Emegene, 77, has attended the Decoration for as long
as she can remember, as have her 12 siblings - six of whom are still living. Any time you visit her little mountainside home, after she hugs you and asks
if she can get you something to eat, she will list off the death-dates of her loved ones, matter-of-factly acknowledging the day each departed the Earth.
Decoration Day for the Dolinger family is always held on the second Sunday in August. But unlike the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, which
occurs every Nov. 1, the largely Southern tradition of Decoration Day doesn't have a fixed date and varies from family to family.
"It's a party in the graveyard," Rich off-handedly explained to me at first, but it is also a family reunion. His relatives travel from many states to this
little cemetery in the Blue Ridge Mountains, adjacent to Grayson Highlands State Park. No one we know actually attends the tiny white Baptist church
attached to it anymore. But each year, the extended family gathers here to eat, talk, and clean and decorate their ancestors' graves.
It is a foreign concept for me, whose family moved from upstate New York to Maryland when I was 8, with ancestors buried, cremated, and
entombed all over the place. Whenever my mother would ask my father, a Vietnam veteran, whether he wanted to be buried in Arlington National
Cemetery, or in their local church's graveyard, or back in New York near his parents, Dad always answered, "just wrap me in a Hefty bag and throw
me in the town dump." Although he is Catholic, I thought this very Buddhist of him, recalling the ancient Tibetan "sky burials," where deceased
individuals were cut into pieces and left on a mountaintop for birds and natural elements to absorb. Not only was this ecologically sound, but it was
seen as a final act of kindness - the dead serving as sustenance to vultures and other living beings.
Alan Jabour, folklorist and retired director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, explains Decoration Day as a 19th-century
American custom that spread with westward migration. In his research for a forthcoming book about the tradition, he has interviewed people from the
Appalachians to the Ozarks, into the Piedmont region of North Carolina, western Kentucky, northern Alabama, and some Cherokees in Eastern
Oklahoma. The practice is sometimes misunderstood as a morbid or somber event. "The tone is reflective and joyous," Jabour explained. "It's about
connectedness to the people around you; the community above the ground is connected to the community beneath the ground."
Most celebrations, like the Dolingers', include food, storytelling, prayer, and adornment of all of the cemetery's headstones - even the unmarked slabs
of rock whose names were washed away long ago. Emegene recalls making flowers out of colored crepe paper weeks in advance for Decorations
when she was a child, later dipping them in wax "to keep them nicer longer." This too, was common practice, according to Jabour; plastic became
popular post-World War II. Now plastic and silken bouquets of yellow roses, red pansies, purple irises, white calla lilies, and sprigs of baby's breath
dot the landscape. My husband's Uncle Roosevelt, wearing his signature white button-down shirt, red suspenders, and blue jeans, always circulates the
celebration with a big white bucket strapped across his chest, collecting donations for the floral adornments.
Philip Dolinger, Rich's second cousin and Emegene's 55-year-old nephew, traveled this year from Herndon, Va., with his wife and daughter. "Over the
years, most of our parents left Appalachia to find work," he said. "But at least one weekend a year, they came back 'home' to honor their parents and
ancestors and to reconnect their ties with their roots in the mountains.
"Many took jobs in suburbs and cities. But their hearts were here in the mountains," he said. Old family photos show him as a boy in front of his
grandparents' headstones; more recent ones show Cousin Philip's own children near his father's grave.
Last summer when we came for the Decoration, we stayed at Emegene's house - an 80-year-old cabin on a hillside, which, my husband remembers,
had only an outhouse as a bathroom until the late 1970s. Early one morning, Rich and his dad were splitting wood in a nearby field while Emegene and
I rocked in chairs on her porch. She pointed out the wild catnip growing "over yonder" and explained how they used it in the old days. "When a baby
was sick or colicky, you could take a pinch of that and make a tea out of it, and give it just a few drops to help it sleep through the night. I think it's
marijuana for cats, though."
Two men were using a back-hoe to dig out a pipe just below the fence line of her front yard - the only part of the hill manicured by man, not cows or
weather. "I hate that they have to tear that grass up to do it, but it'll grow back," Emegene said. The engine shut off and one of the men walked up to
the fence to say good morning and ask how she was doing. "I'm fine. Got visitors right now," she said.
"That right?" the man asked, eyeing me and glancing over at Rich and his dad in the side yard.
"This is my…" Emegene searched for the right word. What am I? I suddenly wondered.
I scanned the labels I'd acquired over the years: Friend. Wife. Sister-in-law. Aunt. Teacher. Writer. Who am I to this woman I've only met a handful of
times, with my big tattoos, two-toned hair, New York accent, vegetarian diet and Japanese car? Me, who married her grandson in a California beach
wedding performed by a poet, Rich in a white guayavera and me in a pink dress made of an old slip. Me, a Yankee with a sordid-to-some past, at 37
and without children. Who am I, exactly?
"Well she's my granddaughter," Emegene said, smiling. "She's married to Richie, my grandson."
I had never heard those words. My father's mother died when he was 16. My mother's mother lived in a psychiatric institution until she died, when I
was 11. My father's father was a grumbly alcoholic who died a year later, and my mother's father, a sweet gentle man I've seen a lot in pictures, died
of emphysema in a hospital bed a thousand miles away from me that same year. I understand grandparents as a concept. But the cookie-making,
unconditionally-loving, gray-haired Grandma is just about as mythological as Santa Claus to me.
Decoration Day seems to rely heavily on grandmothers like Emegene, who cook the food and share the stories of their kin year after year. Some,
though, speculate about the holiday's survival. "There is always worry about tradition dying, but I didn't see evidence of that in the Decorations I
witnessed," said Jabour.
Cousin Philip's interest remains as steadfast as the surrounding mountains. "For over 80 years, my dad returned to this cemetery, at least once a year,"
he said. "Now I make the trip without him. And I imagine my kids and my cousins and their kids will do the same after me. This cemetery is central to
the history of my dad and our family."
Grandma Emegene, though, seems unsure. "Just about everybody who had somebody buried here is gone. It'll be up to the young people, I reckon,"
This year's gathering was significantly smaller than usual. Some could not attend due to illness or obligation. But there are still aunties doting on babies,
grandfathers fixing plates of food for toddlers, and middle-aged cousins exchanging e-mail addresses. Rich and I set our chicken-fried tofu on the
picnic table among the six-layer stack cake, fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni-and-cheese, green bean casserole, baked beans, ham biscuits, corn
bread, and gigantic fresh tomatoes, already planning next year's trip.
[http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20071021/NEWS/710210335/1051/NEWS – StarNewsOnline.com, “The Voice of Southeastern North
Carolina” -- Published October 21. 2007 3:30AM]