Please don't forget the reasons for Decoration Day and Memorial Day

J. H. Osborne • May 19, 2019 at 6:00 PM

Growing up, I always looked forward to “Decoration,” such a part of my maternal family’s yearly calendar that it became our de facto family reunion. Back then, we didn’t really think of it as a reunion, because, well, most of us saw each other regularly. It also was the birthday celebration for our “Popie,” Null Wallen. His actual birthday usually fell a week or two prior to “Decoration,” but the latter was when the Wallen tribe gathered — first to worship at Flower Gap Primitive Baptist Church, then to decorate the graves of family at nearby Flower Gap Cemetery, and finally at his home down the road a few twists and turns from the church headed away from Blackwater and toward Kyles Ford.

That’s where we’d have our own “dinner on the ground.” That term, too, is one that I’ve seen referenced differently than the way I was brought up hearing and saying it. Some say it is actually “dinner on the grounds” as in the grounds of the church or cemetery. I don’t know if anyone really serves a meal on blankets and tablecloths placed directly on the ground anymore. My mother, Wanda, says they definitely had such old-fashioned picnic-style meals with a menu of sandwiches and other treats. The church congregation still had (and has still) dinner on the church grounds. But there were so many of us it seemed appropriate to just have our own spread at Popie’s, where we’d often be joined by non-family as well. By the time I came along, dinner at church was served on tables outside (they now have a covered shelter), and at Popie’s we’d carry tables out into the yard to hold all the food. But we’d often eat sitting on the ground or standing on the porches, the straight-backed chairs that lined them reserved for our elders. My sister, Pamela, says she can vividly remember being at dinners on the ground at other churches and using a car trunk or hood as a makeshift picnic table.

We’d gather for pictures at these reunions, at both the cemetery and at Popie’s. Some of my favorite pictures of my aunts and uncles are of them dressed in their finest, standing at the tombstone of their mother, which Popie eventually shared. These cemetery photo shoots were a great curiosity to my former co-worker Jo Ellen Werking Weedman. Especially since we continue to take them. Jo Ellen was from Indiana. Maybe they don’t do things our way up there.

The cemetery visit (with photos) and perhaps going to church, are about the only part of “Decoration” that continue unchanged for some of us who are left. The meal has evolved over the years. After Popie passed, we moved the meal to the home of my aunt and uncle, Venus (Wallen) and Carson Lawson. But age made it more and more difficult for some to attend. For others, it was life and careers elsewhere. In recent years the picnic is on Saturday here in Kingsport, at Eastman Cabins. We’re planning that again this year. Last year a lot of us ventured out that evening to the Carter Fold. It was Mom’s first visit. It was also her first visit as the last survivor of her ten siblings. Aunt Mary (Wallen Roller) went to heaven just a couple of months prior. In honor of her first visit, the band dedicated a song to Mom. We all had a great time. Some of us plan to go back to the fold next Saturday night.

“Decoration” at Flower Gap Cemetery usually falls the same weekend as Memorial Day, the federal holiday for remembering veterans who died in service. But not always. The church’s annual memorial service (for members who have passed) is always the Sunday after the fourth Saturday in May. So it doesn’t always fall on Memorial Day weekend. If my calculations are correct, in 2021 Memorial Day — always the last Monday in May — will be May 31. But the fourth Saturday that year will be May 22, making Flower Gap’s memorial service Sunday May 23. Other churches and/or cemeteries have their own memorial services and decoration days. Many are in May and June. But others are in other seasons.

It was these types of events which preceded Memorial Day, according to multiple sources. Memorial Day is a week from tomorrow. For many, this national holiday creates a three-day weekend that is the unofficial start of summer fun. But as I’ve covered Memorial Day ceremonies over the years, I’ve often heard U.S. military veterans remind crowds that Memorial Day is a solemn day of remembrance .... It’s not about cookouts and boating. It is to honor and remember those American soldiers who died while serving their country.

According to multiple sources, Memorial Day grew out of Decoration Day in the 1860s shortly after the Civil War, as communities held ceremonies to honor the war dead and place flowers on their graves. By 1900, May 30 was recognized as Memorial Day by state legislatures across the nation. After World War, I the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1968, Congress declared the last Monday in May as Memorial Day.

So next weekend have fun, but don’t forget the true meaning of Memorial Day. And when it’s “Decoration” where your people are buried, go visit and take a few stick flowers (and don’t forget your camera). In any case, Saturday night is always a good time to go to the Fold.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]