In the South, Memorial Day is known by another name, Decoration Day. It’s when you drive out to the country with your family to put flowers on your kinfolk’s graves. For me, it brings back the memory of riding in my dad’s Pontiac Parisienne with my grandmother Lizzie and my granddaddy Pete up Highway 153 to Meigs County, Tennessee, to the little white temple of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church where my grandmother’s people were buried deep in red clay beneath the cemetery’s itchy calf-high grass.
It was a dreadful experience. Hot as hell already in late May, and me fighting with my sister for the front seat and the air conditioning, squeezed between the men. Either way, front or back, the bottoms of your thighs would sweat and my mother always made me wear pants. Halfway up we stopped at some little grocery store on the side of the road and bought plastic flowers. We never took real ones because my grandmother said they wouldn’t last. Even then to my untutored mind it seemed a paradoxical idea. There was no McDonalds in the country, no toy stores, no movie theaters, no ma-and-pa bazaars filled with cheap plastic trinkets, fake tomahawks, dirty postcards or ninja throwing stars. There was nothing to look forward to but Madlibs with my cousins in the hard wooden pews, and the heady smell of pine and magnolias, honeysuckle and lilac.
We were forced, or rather, strongly encouraged, to walk with Grandmother through the graves, as she recited the familiar litany of humorless names—James, Wilmer, Earnest, Frank—telling us for the umpteenth time how they were kin to us, a brief summation of their best qualities in life and how they died. I would like to say I was transported by the otherworldliness of it all. But in truth all I could think about was what cartoons I was missing or else tabulating a mental checklist of all the Star Wars figures waiting peacefully for me at home in their Darth Vader carrying case.
One event, however, never failed to move me: the annually appointed moment when my grandmother came to the little pink stone that marked her infant daughter Phyllis, the aunt I’d never known, who died in Lizzie’s arms of scarlet fever on a train from Texas to Tennessee during the Great Depression. As my grandmother knelt to lay the waxy bouquet at the marker, she always stumbled in my father’s arms as tears gushed quick to her eyes from some deep latent reservoir, and she uttered a feral yelp of woe that pierced the pastoral stillness like a rusty nail. It was all over in a minute. Then she regained her steady composure, though the tears continued to fall softly for the first ten minutes of the car ride home.
Phyllis captivated me, and I would imagine what she looked like waiting for us in a more forgiving realm, the cousins she’d birthed me in that world whom I would never meet, and what it would be like if she spent Christmas with us at Grandmother and Granddaddy’s house, a tragically untapped vein of additional presents. Would my life be any different, I wondered, if Phyllis wasn’t where she was supposed to be—reliably dead in the dew-clogged dirt? There were little lambs carved into her headstone, their faces worn away, but yet recognizable.
As much as I despised this yearly ritual, it’s amazing how clearly and with what potent sense-memory I still recall it. Maybe it’s because I secretly loved it, but that just wasn’t the case. Maybe it’s because I loved Lizzie, and the memory of Decoration Day binds me to her, and keeps her vibrant in my thoughts and sacred in my heart. She was a wise, proud, loving woman who lived to be 92. Or maybe it’s because Decoration Day is such a symbol of the poetry of Southern life. That at the tail end of May, the threshold of a season of frolic, we trekked to garland graves. So natural it was, so regular, to muddy sultry with somber, to consecrate spirits in the sweltering sun, to make beautiful death.
This same natural impulse runs through the Drive-By Truckers' Decoration Day, a record not just of a high songwriting calibre by its three guitarist/songwriters Patterson Hood, Steve Cooley and Jason Isbell, each offering a disparate take on the Southern experience; but of pure lyrical poetry. Through 15 tracks that are more like short stories than songs, the Truckers, working at their peak as a studio band, reflect on the vibrant darkness, the passions that outlive the dead. So captivating are the narratives and first person character studies you almost forget how hard the album's guitar assault rocks or how melodically and effortlessly the softer ballads seduce. "Heathens," Patterson's enigmatic tale of a man who just won't learn, is like staring straight into a flickering soul. Cooley's "Loaded Gun in the Closet" weaves a portrait of a marriage in which love is measured and nurtured by a looming act of violence. And Isbell's title cut is a bone-chilling anthem of a sensible man trying to break free from the demons that propel him from beyond the grave and inevitably towards it. From start to finish, Decoration Day is a beautifully crafted ode to the ancestors and urges that make us ourselves.
Next week, two days too late, I’m going back to Tennessee for a wedding. Now, two decades since, I have my own graves to decorate. And I will do it with same gracious, heartfelt humility I learned from my grandmother, Elizabeth. To her I’ll give a red rose. To my other grandmother, Virginia, a yellow one. To my Dad, a dozen white carnations. But the flowers I leave will be real.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS DECORATION DAY, 2003, New West Records (2007 vinyl issue)