The Diary of Memory



I agree with the words of George Eliot: “I desire no future that will break the ties of the past.” With every passing year I seem to long more and more for the “good ol’ days.”

The beginning of summer always takes me back to the Sartain family reunions. Traditionally, my family has gathered together once a year to re-unite, to “visit” with relatives we seldom see, and to decorate graves at the home place cemetery in the “holler.”

sartain cemetery gate

These gatherings occur less frequently now than they did when I was a child. I think the younger people can’t spare the time and the older people can’t spare the energy. Nonetheless, those of us who still attend our family reunions share fond memories.

My relatives include a long line of all-day-singin’-and-dinner-on-the-ground believers and salt-of-the-earth good folk. Over the years some memories of our reunions have faded, but others seemed to have happened yesterday. . . .

Our dinner wasn’t on the ground, but we were. The “holler” overflowed with blankets, babies, banjos, and baked beans.


In the mornings the musical relatives unpacked their instruments and began playing under the big shade trees near the back of the cemetery. Cousins danced and swayed to the rhythm of the music, and others stepped to the music of a different drummer. The women tended to the food while the men reveled in the relaxation of the day.

My mother and my grandmother were the best cooks in the world. Sorry, Rick Bragg, but you never tasted my mother’s coconut cake or my grandmother’s fried chicken. In addition to these delights, our table was covered with deviled eggs, corn on the cob, ham and homemade biscuits. Everyone looked forward to the ritual favorites and the “new recipe I just had to try.”

When the dinner bell rang, the music stopped and everyone gathered around the tables. An uncle blessed the food and thanked God for another opportunity to spend time with kith and kin.

Casseroles were uncovered, domed Avon fly screens were removed, and family was fed.

After everyone had over-indulged, the music began again. We must have believed in Shakespeare’s adage, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

My cousins often gave tribute to Johnny Cash with a lively rendition of “Ring of Fire.” However, the afternoon eventually gave way to a slower, sleepy tempo required by the soporific effects of food and heat. “Ring of Fire” turned into “Make the World Go Away” and “Shall We Gather at the River.”

While the music slowed and some nodded off, others began the loving task of decorating the family graves. We could hear Patsy Cline’s “Faded Love” just beyond the cemetery fence as we removed the faded flowers from the tombstone vases.


Bright reds, whites, and blues dominated the hillside. As we re-read the names and dates, great aunts and uncles retold familiar stories.

The day usually ended with watermelon or homemade ice cream on the front porch of the home place. It was a great vantage point from which to see the freshly mowed cemetery adorned with its brightly colored flowers.

Cousins then packed up their instruments, wiped the sticky hands and faces of the children, and began the ascent out of the “holler.” They promised to see us again next year. . . .

These days the next years don’t always happen, but the family members who live near the cemetery continue to be its caretakers. The music may have faded, but the memories are still vivid.

Like Clyde Edgerton’s wisteria vine in his book Floatplane, my great grandmother’s rosebush continues to see all and hear all in the Sartain cemetery. From babies who died after two days of life to great aunts who lived to be over 100, their stories are as rich as the soil that surrounds them; and they are a vital part of my heritage.

rosebush in cemetery

In Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” he initially mourns the passing of his own childhood. However, he eventually understands the joy of memory:

Hence in a season of calm weather

Though inland far we be,

Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea

Which brought us hither,

Can in a moment travel thither,

And see the Children sport upon the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!

And let the young Lambs bound

As to the tabor’s sound!

We in thought will join your throng,

Ye that pipe and ye that play,

Ye that through your hearts today

Feel the gladness of the May!

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

olivia with sartain grave

I’m sure my stories are not the exact stories my sister or my cousins might recall. However, memory does bring me joy. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”

Deuteronomy 32:7 tells us, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders and they will tell you.”

2 Thessalonians 2:15; Psalm 143:5

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