But first we’ll stop in at Willis Chapel Primitive Baptist Church, which will be having its annual memorial service honoring members who’ve passed on since last year — as well as a “dinner on the grounds.”
Mom has gone to the cemetery service many times over the years. I have taken her the last three years. Last year we made it in time to attend the church’s service, special to us because Aunt Mary’s name was those read off of members who went to their reward in the prior year. Mom showed me the exact spot in the church where she accepted Christ as her personal savior when she was a child. And we sat on a pew dedicated to the memory of her parents, Null and Pearl Wallen.
Cousin Phyllis Hunt Manis joined us on our journey and all three of us enjoyed the fellowship and food of the dinner on the grounds. I had taken Greek spinach pie. They are shaped like turnovers and filled with a savory mix of spinach, feta and other cheeses, green onion, and fresh dill. The are called spanakopita, and I first learned to love them as easy to eat, and economical, “street food” while touring Greece 35 years ago. Mom loves them, calling them “that Greece food you make.” I get a kick out of this because I know many people think she is saying “that grease food you make.”
Later we moved on to the Willis Cemetery, a bit down Wallentown Road from the church. It is located behind what was my grandmother Pearl’s grandparents’ homeplace. I was delighted to find there, among the gathering crowd, my long-ago Kingsport City Schools K12 classmate, Mark Willis. I knew we were somehow related through the Willis line even back in our school days, but wasn’t clear on how. I’m afraid here to guess at what tier cousins we are, and if there needs to be a “removed” cited in that calculation. But we are both descended from my great-great grandparents, William and Anise (sometimes listed as Anna or Annie) Willis. Both are buried in the cemetery.
After some songs of praise, Mark was among those who offered up The Word. He got rolling with a quote from Matthew 27:51-53. “And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”
“One day, these graves right here are going to be opened and the dead in Christ shall arise and those of them who are righteous shall meet them in the air,” Mark continued, with a sweeping gesture toward the graves of our ancestors, kinfolk and others.
After the cemetery service, everyone was invited to dinner at the nearby volunteer fire hall. The meal was great, and over food we got to mix and mingle with many Willis cousins. I especially enjoyed catching up, albeit briefly, with Mark. Mom took our picture together to show how much we’ve changed since being in class together at Lincoln Elementary School. Now I can’t find it. But I’ll hopefully get a chance to get a fresh one Sunday. Mark is scheduled to again preach at the cemetery.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]