Coming from a small, truly united community, I have many places that are dear to me that I often visit. One of these is a small city, located in the town where I grew up. But this is no ordinary city: it’s a resting place for people who have gone on before us.
As I walk through Smith Cemetery at Vendor, Arkansas, I take a look around at the variety of headstones: Old and new, tall and short, varying well over a hundred years in dates, serving as silent sentinels over people who lie beneath them. To a stranger who might come along and gaze at the names and dates, they would be only that – names and dates. But for me, I know these people. There are those who have passed in my lifetime and those who went on before I was even thought of. My people lie beneath these stones.
To my left I see a collection of large, black stones with my last name engraved on them. I walk over to Glen C. Holt. This was ‘Pops’ to me, my grandfather. This is no ordinary man lying here; he is much more than a collection of dates etched in marble and tarnished by sun and weather. As I stand by his grave, reading over the inscription I can call him to mind; a lifelong trucker in worn out RedWing boots and a flannel shirt, nearly always unbuttoned at the top. A pair of dark tinted glasses and the ever-present Prince Albert can in his pocket. I can hear George Jones playing faintly as I stand there, and catch just a whiff of ‘PA’ cigarettes. Pops is still very much alive to me, and he always will be.
Across the way is Glen’s father, Wayne, and I also have two more direct ancestors here. My father’s people being early settlers here, this became their burying ground. But it is much more than that. These old cemeteries are treasures of history; people who worked, lived and died here, serving (sometimes terrorizing) their communities and neighbors; people who worked the very land they now lie beneath.
There are memories here, good and bad. As I stride along I come across a young man who was a friend of mine, who took his life in a moment of despondency. There’s another young man who was killed in the Second World War, whom I have a picture of. It took the family years to bring his body back from the Phillipines and re-inter him here. His own brother refused to attend the funeral, saying he didn’t believe it was his brother’s body at all.
There is tragedy here. My 2nd great-uncle and two friends lie here, all killed in 1968 when their car landed in Big Creek, flowing only a few miles from where I now stand. There’s Everett Davis, who fought in the Second World War and came home to die from a shotgun blast only about a mile from where he now rests. There are two young men who died in a vehicle accident in 1954. My 2nd great-uncle was the lone survivor. He spent the rest of his life hating that. He lies nearby, as well. There are children and adults who died from disease, accidents, drowning, and every other cause one can think of.
But tragedy is not an endearing emotion. Luckily, tragedy is not the only thing here at Smith Cemetery.
I recall fond memories, memories from many people who now rest here, such as following my great-grandmother around as she tended graves on Decoration Day, putting up and fixing flowers and laying green carpet on the graves. I can see many people gathered around, visiting. Decoration Day was always a social event. Food and conversation were the order of the day; hope and love over tragedy and loss.
This is what remembrance is about – the good and the bad. My great-grandmother rests near her sons and husband here, but I see more than dates on her stone. I see her working in the garden. A woman that in her late 80s could outwork men half her age in the garden; a woman whose fried pies were a large contributor to my childhood obesity (and I wouldn’t have it any other way, mind you) and whose beans were world class. She fed and raised her family and died a proud, Christian woman. A life well lived, by all measures.
Her husband, my great-grandfather, lies next to her. He and his father before him both built coffins and dug many graves in this cemetery, all by hand. He would tell my father that in the old section, there were many more graves than markers. I don’t think he ever charged for this service, doing it to help out the community. When I go to his stone, I see him still, stoic and gazing across the hillsides in the warm summer sun. His ball cap pulled low over his eyes and his Big Smith overalls on. A man of the hills; a man of quiet integrity and honesty; someone to emulate.
His middle son lies next to him; a tough, rowdy man with a heart of gold. A man who was fearless behind the wheel of a car or in a barroom brawl, that never raised a hand to his family, that I ever know of. I can still hear his voice as he laughed, telling me how to work on things or entertaining us with some light story. These people I knew, but even the ones I didn’t know in my lifetime, I have come to know by tales and reminiscences by my people. I can read off names and instantly recall some detailed small event in their lives; some tragic, some not, but they have all left traces on who I am today. My people.
Cemeteries are an amazing resource for researchers, and great places to sit and collect your thoughts. But the important thing is to carry on the traditions that were handed to you. The same ones handed down to me by the people who now lie here. Remember them. Honor them. Do your best to emulate their good qualities and heed their warnings and lessons. The eyes of your fathers are on you not only here, but everywhere.
And if you’re ever in Smith Cemetery in Vendor, Arkansas be sure and tell them all I said howdy.
God bless you and yours. May we all strive to find favor in the eyes of our fathers.