It is Memorial Day weekend in the United States, but in Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, it is more commonly referred to as “Decoration Day.”
My parents, Carl J. and Cossette (Watring) Feather, seemed to have a standing engagement in West Virginia each May, for the sole purpose of decorating the graves of parents, siblings and grandparents. They traveled to the Rose Hill Cemetery in Thomas, where Mom’s parents and grandparents are buried, and to the Gnegy Church Cemetery at Horse Shoe Run, where Dad’s parents rest, along with his grandparents, sister and brother.
Plastic flower arrangements along with bags of mulch, grass clippers, weed eaters, hoes and rakes were packed in the back of my father’s Jeep, leaving only enough room for a change of clothing and their beloved dog, Lucy Mae, as they made the trip and executed their duties in the course of two or three days. Each time they returned home, my mother declared she would not make that trip again, it was just too exhausting. And come the next Decoration Day, they made it.
They did so much more than simply fill the urn on the Watring grave with a bouquet or push the flimsy metal stakes of an artificial arrangement into the Preston County clay. Weeds and grass that grew around the stones were cut away with a string trimmer; stubborn weeds were dug out with trowels. Mulch was applied around the perimeters, then the stones cleaned of stains. It was time consuming and at times hard work for folks in their 80s, but it is what we do here on Decoration Day.
My heart attack earlier this year is limiting my mobility and travel, so I won’t be able to carry on my parents’ Decoration Day efforts until later. I suspect my father will make it a point to travel from Ohio to Preston and Tucker counties to “take care of the graves.”
Graves. What is worse than the grave?
Within the tight clan structure of traditional Appalachian families, ancestors are remembered and honored. Their stories and accomplishments live on through generations of family that remembers and honors them on Decoration Day, as well as around the campfire and hearth the rest of the year. These stories turn tombs into tomes, graves into gateways to gaining a better understanding ourselves.
My ancestors Jacob and Mary Feather are buried five miles south of my home in the Lenox Memorial Cemetery. Jacob was 16 years old when his family immigrated to the colonies in 1775. He sailed into Philadelphia and a war for independence. Within a couple of years, he was fighting in that war, as well.
By virtue of that service, Jacob and Mary are honored with bronze plaques, in addition to their damaged gravestones. I first visited these graves in July 2019, after beginning research for a book about the family and its attraction to the mountains. As I talk to my father about his dad and granddad, my own persona comes into focus. I understand what drives me, for it largely the same things that drove my ancestors: working hard, living in the mountains (as Jacob’s family did in Rhineland), a deep love for animals, frugality and faith in God. I am proud to be a Feather, Watring, Harsh, Fike, Judy, Sypolt, Broomhall, Moats, Lipscomb, Arnold and Weimer.
My search for their stories has taken me from Bedford and Somerset counties in Pennsylvania to the Crab Orchard of Preston County, where my cousin, Kelvin Feather, and I uncovered an old family cemetery of the Rodenheavers, who do not appear to be in my line. The Feather children and grandchildren would have know the Rodenheavers as neighbors, and I wonder if their association with this “colored boy” inspired my great great grandfather, Adam, to enlist in the Union Army along with his cousin. Both were wounded in battle, captured and did time in Confederate prisons, where Adam’s cousin died.
I have discovered that I and Barack Obama share a fourth great-grandmother, and one of my ancestors on the Arnold line was the first to preach the gospel in Eglon, where my father grew up. An Anabaptist ancestor went on to establish the Amish community in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. I have learned of the amazing physical strength and stamina of the Harsh men, of which I, unfortunately, inherited not a lick, although both my father and son possess it, and the spiritual fervor of my father’s cousin, who was martyred while he and his wife were doing missionary work with the Church of the Brethren in China. And my great-grandfather’s reputation as a hometown, self-educated veterinarian who loved animals explains my deep compassion for those lesser among us.
My unique mix of passions, frustrations, quirkiness and deepest aspirations come into focus when I view them through this telescope of genealogy. One ought to climb a family tree if for no other reason to find oneself among the leaves and twigs. The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we understand what motivates us. For that reason, I believe that genealogy ought to be a required subject in our educational system; it could spare us much of the angst of “finding one’s self” as a teenager.
Perhaps if we all understood our ancestors better, there would not be one undecorated grave in the cemetery on Decoration Day.