by: Wes Ishmael

Decoration Day—Memorial Day as some folks called it—always had special meaning in Hooter's family. His crew was close-knit, for one thing. For another, up through the Gulf War, someone in his family had fought in every war going back to the American Revolution. That included the Civil War, of course. Letters still circulated among the family from cousins who had fought for the Confederacy out of Tennessee.

That's one reason Hooter had such a soft spot for Daughters of the Confederacy like the legendary Carrie McGavock of Carnton Plantation jut outside of Franklin, Tenn. She buried the boys following the ruinous battle there and maintained their memory so that future generations could never forget. It was her efforts and those of her peers that ultimately gave birth to what would become a national day of remembrance.

Those were the kind of thoughts running through Hooter's mind as he bounced down the highway, a few hundred miles north on a trip he'd dreaded ever since his Mom died. Though the family still had roots in Tennessee, his Mom's bunch had ultimately homesteaded in Oklahoma and Kansas. Just east of a little town in Kansas, on a little hill, is where most of Hooter's kin were buried.

Every year, Hooter's family, close and distant, those who could still make it, headed there for Decoration Day to reunite and to remember. Schedule and distance meant everyone missed a few of those annual reunions along the way, but Hooter had been a regular.

Hooter stared through the windshield at nothing in particular and tried to remember how many years it had been since he'd last been here for Decoration Day. He could remember the last time he'd been at the cemetery. It was to bury his Mom. She'd transplanted to Texas but made it clear that her last destination on this earth would be the family plot in that little cemetery.

Since then, Hooter always found reasons why he couldn't attend the May gathering.

“It's no big deal, one way or the other,” cousin Charlie told him every year, as he went over last-minute chore instructions before loading up Aunt Pinky and his family for the annual pilgrimage. “There's no reason to feel guilty about not going. It's not like she's there, after all. On the other hand, when the day comes that you decide to go back, I'm guessing you'll be glad you did.”

Those Things that Must Be Done

So, here Hooter was, finally drifting up the hill of that little cemetery toward the area he remembered. The sun was barely up. All the rest of the folks wouldn't show up for hours. Hooter figured he needed some time here alone.

Memories swirled through his head. Surely, it was just a couple of weeks ago he'd seen his Mom atop her favorite horse, a mare she called Bell, for some reason Hooter never knew or didn't remember. Out among the livestock, that's where she was always at complete peace, especially with a horse under her. And always that smile that wrapped around you like a blanket on a frosty morning. Those eyes that told folks how loved they were. And that laugh, an invitation that no one could resist.

Hooter knew he was getting close, spying familiar names on the stones, lots of stones. Some of them he'd known, loved on this earth, learned from and mourned when they went on ahead. Others he knew by name and family stories. He respected each one, said a prayer of thanks over each along the way.

Finally, way too soon and way too long past due, he was there, standing in front of the stone he'd only seen in pictures sent by well meaning relatives:

“Here Lies Our Beautiful Mom Virginia Lee Alley (Ishmael)”

Hooter crumbled like an iffy water gap in a hard rain. Just like he knew he would. Just like he suspected he would every time he saw it again.

His Mom wasn't there. He knew that. She had claimed her reward in Heaven. He knew that, too. For some reason, though, here is where Hooter had tried to keep the memories, as best as he could. Now, he was engulfed by them inside and out.

Hooter wasn't sure exactly how long he'd been there. One minute he felt the damp ground beneath his knees. The next, he was standing there, hat in his hand, staring at the stone, cousin Charlie's arm draped around his shoulder; no words, just an arm.

Hooter looked around. The cemetery was teeming with people, most whom he knew. There was laughter, tears and a head start on well worn stories that would continue over dinner at the community center.

Those folks kept their distance for the time being. That's one thing you've got to love about family, Hooter thought; when the chips are down, they know just what you need and when you need it.

A stiff breeze threatened Hooter's straw hat and he became aware of just how much wind was kicking around, whistling among the stones and blowing up dust. Everyone's Sunday best was fighting for freedom.

About 30 yards off, Hooter saw a second-cousin, ol' Bessy, as his Mom called her. For whatever reason, the first-cousins—Hooter's Mom and ol' Bessy—always had one of those relationships characterized by polite, mutual, simmering antagonism.

Bessy was leaning on her cane, the lace on her bonnet pinned flat by the wind. She was chattering like a magpie, using her hands as much as her mouth to convey an apparently urgent message. It was one of those moments when everyone seemed to be looking the same direction at once. As if in slow motion, a mighty gust of wind roared through, straightened up Bessie first and then lifted her dress over the top of her head. She was so entangled and fighting so hard to get untangled that it took several family members to pull, smooth, unfold and ruffle until all of cousin Bessy was tucked safely back into place.

Hooter looked up at a cloud that seemed to wink at him. He began to laugh like there was no tomorrow. Charlie howled. Hooter's Mom had to be beating her knees most of all.

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