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Basic family cemetery

Julie Finn ’98 takes readers to the top of the Ozarks for an eccentric family gathering for “Those Graveyard Workin’s.”

Basic family cemetery

Julie Finn ’98 takes readers to the top of the Ozarks for an eccentric family gathering for “Those Graveyard Workin’s.”

Everybody in my family — from the first settlers to arrive just after the Native Americans were kicked west again, to a great-aunt who passed away a couple of summers ago — lives in a small family cemetery at the top of one of the tallest and most isolated of the Ozark mountains. Two notable exceptions — my sister Annie, one of a set of twins, who died suddenly from some mysterious ailment of the ovaries at age 19; and my brother Louis, stillborn, named after a stillborn brother of my Papa — live in a local cemetery in our hometown. Though they died 30 years apart, they each had the misfortune of passing during the winter months, when no road could be broken up the steep mountain, and consequently they were buried in the cemetery across town from the hospital in which each of them died, in my hometown and a good hundred miles from the family cemetery.

Compared to the family cemetery theirs is a posh place, where the grass is green and lush, and the tombstones are all tall and unbroken. Some anonymous gardener works regularly to keep the weeds and the faded plastic flowers picked, and every few weeks a relative or four stops by on their way home from the Western Sizzler to drop off a few more sterile flowers and stand awkwardly for a few minutes. In contrast to the family cemetery, the home of Annie and Louis is extremely upper-class. They, undoubtedly, are terribly ashamed.

The third Saturday in every August is the day of the family graveyard refurbishment, referred to in my family as “Those Graveyard Workins.” On that Saturday every relative in the United States congregates at the top of our Ozark Mountain, in our family cemetery. For my family the journey, although never leaving the state of Arkansas, is a long one, weaving up and down and then higher up, with roads that lurch the stomach and occasionally are unpaved. Most of the relatives, however, Virgil and his sorta-wife Geraldine and the twins Cleta and Leta and Earl and all the rest, already live nearby. They spend their time between those graveyard workins farming terrible existences on the side of the mountain, or working in the chicken processing plant two towns over, or playing car mechanic and carpenter and air conditioning repairperson in the nearby city of Pocahontas. These relatives arrive mostly in pickup trucks, three to five children and the mother in the back, father and elderly parents in the front. They park on the edge of the cemetery, where no graves are yet, and then pull out lawn chairs and garbage bags and rakes and flowers and huge picnic lunches, and while the younger people, those 50 and under, clean up the cemetery and shoo away snakes and capture pretty lizards, the older ones, my Papa’s generation, sit on lawnchairs under the chigger tree and gossip until noon.

Any mountain family is full of illegitimate kids who grow up and form their own families with their own illegitimate kids, who in turn grow up to have kids of their own, and so our cemetery has developed several offshoot families, to whom I am related in only the vaguest of ways, and who as a result of their ambiguous statuses are consigned the portions of the cemetery closer to the front gate, where the dirt is harder and where the pickup truck of an occasional visitor occasionally parks. This, of course, concerns only the illegitimate kids who survived and thrived; a small section of cemetery, in the front corner under an overhanging tree, is rumored to be the final resting place of perhaps a dozen no-daddy babies who were strangled at birth by their mothers or grandmothers and laid to rest without markers. My immediate family, which has the distinction of being pure and direct (though both Papa’s and Mama’s shadier relatives were the founders of several of the trashier offshoots), resides in the back center of the cemetery, and when the old shoddy tombstones begin to lean, they can do so against trees that Papa’s great-grandpa planted, and don’t have to just fall onto the ground, like the tombstones of the offshoots. Only family of about the last four generations have readable tombstones at all — any monuments before that were made out of any old lumber or stones that could be spared from the farming and the building, and you could be sure that if it was able to be spared, then it wasn’t very good quality to begin with. Names and dates were burned or whittled in, and they faded within a generation. Now us cleaners rely on the lawnchair old folks to point out those graves, spots of earth completely the same as all the other spots of earth, and tell us exactly who lies there and what kind of flowers they get.

After the graves are cleaned, and the flowers placed, and the leaves burned, and the lizards caught, and the younger kids rescued time and again from the bonfires that always seem to be put under the authority of the stupider male cousins, we eat. Long wooden picnic tables that our great-great-granddads made are pulled from the sides of the cemetery to the center, over the World War I graves, and the old women make themselves and the old men busy covering them with intricately pieced yet grimy quilts, and laying out the feasts. Being a vegetarian, and a bit queasy, I don’t usually do very well at the lunches. The Baptist cousin horrifies us all with some long-winded Baptist prayer, brutal to our mostly Methodist sensitivities, and the hat passes, a time during which my family is watched closely by the relatives. We’re expected to contribute a lot, because we live in the city.

My parents, after living in the city for 50 or so years, don’t think their Ozark relatives are that clean, and so we kids, who also aren’t supposed to mention that our cousins are wearing our old and stained clothes, are soundly warned against anything that looks at all suspicious, which includes about everything but the Kentucky Fried Chicken we brought ourselves. Everyone else, however — from some cousin’s kid who just learned to suck gravy to Nana, who, though my parents dragged her into the city after them, never forgot her roots — piles their paper plates. Sourdough biscuits (Kentucky Fried is almost as good as Papa’s), ringeye gravy (made of coffee grounds and pig’s blood), squirrel and roast beef and thick stew and fried potatoes and fried greens and hominy grits and chicken dumplings (necks just wrung yesterday) and vegetables picked that morning and wild berries and apple pie and apple cake (still sooty from the woodfire it was baked in) and cherry cobbler and strawberry ice cream and honey on a cornpone and, for the men my Papa’s age who were in World War II and for the wives they married immediately afterward and taught everything they knew, a Marlboro as an after-dinner treat.

While the treat is being enjoyed both by the adults and by the pack of teenagers (one of whom inevitably steals several cigarettes from Uncle Cleburne and spikes them with marijuana) out in the woods behind the outhouse, the old people, my Papa’s generation, get talkative. It probably has something to do with the history of the cemetery, where an occasional arrowhead or Civil War medallion works its way to the surface, where a couple of the old people will be resting permanently this time the next year. It could be because of the ready audience, already resigned to an entire day away from the television and looking for like entertainment, or because of the fact that the audience, and themselves, are all related, all share at least a smattering of the same physical characteristics, and looking at the children is like looking at their own childhoods. Once, a few years ago, I walked around the gathering with a video camera, my Papa’s. The video camera is something dragged out at every momentous social event, usually with me or Papa as operator. We make tapes that my sister Eloise later elaborately labels and files in a tape cabinet. They’re never looked at. However, this particular tape, containing only about 20 minutes of graveyard workins after-dinner gossip, is one I’ve caught my parents watching at odd times during the year. They start guiltily when I walk into the room, as if they’re watching pornography instead of family, and turn the video off quickly enough, but I always, as I assume they do, remember the pieces I see before the tape is removed. My Mama talks about “her daddy,” my Papa talks about seeing his first Indian. The old, old men talk about wars they’re so proud their ancestors were in, and the old, old women talk about how many children died and how many crops were lost during those wars. I come on screen briefly to play a well-applauded country hymn on my fiddle, coaxed to do so but having no trouble showing off while everyone claps in time and even dances, a little.

Ever since I can remember, my brother and sisters and I have always fought with our parents about those graveyard workins. We don’t want to go. We think we hate the three-hour drive straight up a mountain, think we hate crazy great-aunt Geraldine with the corncob pipe and pictures of horses duct-taped to the wall, think we hate even the thought of having to go back to the graveyard every single year. My parents, however, won’t even hear of any of us not going. My parents, Mama especially, tell us that it’ll be our job to go back to the family cemetery every year after they’re dead, to put flowers on their graves and listen to old-people stories and eventually tell stories of our own, before we, too, are buried there. The last time we got this lecture Eloise took me aside later just to say that she thought a nice bland plot in Forest Lawn beside Annie and Louis would be about the nicest thing there was. I’m sure it would be nice, too, but nice isn’t exactly what I’m looking for in an afterlife. I’ll take family any day.

Julie Finn ’98, a former intern for the magazine, is now writing as an assistant for the collision division for the Automotive Service Association. She lives in Fort Worth.