Decoration Day

I am reposting a piece from a few years ago. Not only is today Memorial Day and Decoration Day; it would have been Daddy’s 91st birthday. Decoration Day was very important to him so it is natural that I would be very nostalgic about him today.

My sister and I live much too far away to be able to pay our respects in person, so some of our cousins sent pictures of the graves of our grandparents, great grandparents, and our Daddy (seen below).

The Days of the Living Dead

I am a taphophile, a cemetery enthusiast. This is not unusual in the South, especially Appalachia and the Blue Ridge. Honoring and remembering our dead is a common practice. You’ll often hear some of our older generation talk about attending a good funeral and cleaning and decorating the burial places of both our recent and long dead ancestors is an occasion. In fact, in these areas, Memorial Day is considered Decoration Day because we pay respects to all the dead, not just the military. In some places, it is such a celebration that churches or families have “dinner on the grounds” which can take the form of a picnic at the burial grounds.

We have family buried all over parts of eastern Kentucky and I can promise you that no matter how remote or inconvenient, we found a way to clean the area and place flowers on the grave. Even burial sites that were slowly sliding down toward the river – we hung off rocks and tried to shore them up to keep them as stable as possible. We have family buried in the middle of a state park. Some are spread throughout the hills on farms that are no longer owned by family. Many are in large, family cemeteries. As part of this care, my father along other family members made a project of placing stones for those who had no markers on their graves. Honoring the dead is serious business in my family.

revadamsMy father was the genealogist in the family and I inherited the project when he passed 11 years ago. The headstones provide invaluable information about the life and times of our predecessors. The older headstones and monuments can be quite creative and lead us to other resources. Some are simply grand works of art.

For the art and atmosphere, I love Savannah’s Bonaventure and Colonial Park Cemeteries and the Huguenot Cemetery in St. Augustine. The serenity and solitude in these places bring peace to my soul. When we travel, I always seek out the oldest cemetery in the area. It doesn’t matter that none of those buried there are “my people”. They are someone’s people and are deserving of honor and respect.

Cemeteries have a way of keeping our past alive for me. The souls interred are very alive because no one is gone as long as they live in someone’s memory. I make sure they live in mine. The burial grounds and churchyards truly are the homes of the living dead.

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Thanksgiving List

appleborderWhen I was still in the classroom, my students read a historical novel written entirely in free verse by Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust. One especially beautiful and inspiring passage was Thanksgiving List. It made a wonderful model for writing and all of us, my students and myself, wrote our own list before Thanksgiving. I’m still doing this. Here is this year’s list.


Early morning stillness,                                                                                                                         broken by birdsong,                                                                                                                               and the call of the cranes                                                                                                                     as they greet                                                                                                                                         the sun.

Redbirds feeding                                                                                                                                       in our backyard                                                                                                                                       garden.                                                                                                                                                     The first sign                                                                                                                                           of winter                                                                                                                                                 when a robin arrives                                                                                                                           escaping the cold north.

The warm sun                                                                                                                                           on my back,                                                                                                                                       cutting through the shivers                                                                                                             from the sharp chill                                                                                                                             of the wind.

The soul-warming scent of                                                                                                                   autumn spice –                                                                                                                               cinnamon,                                                                                                                                                 clove,                                                                                                                                                       allspice,                                                                                                                                               nutmeg.

Family.                                                                                                                                             Warm hugs.                                                                                                                                               Home –                                                                                                                                                     the place where                                                                                                                                 those I love can                                                                                                                                         be found,                                                                                                                                               wherever that may be.

Memories                                                                                                                                                   of holidays                                                                                                                                                 past,                                                                                                                                                           and those we love                                                                                                                                     who                                                                                                                                                         are no longer within reach                                                                                                                   of our touch                                                                                                                                               but always within                                                                                                                                 reach of our hearts.

For these things                                                                                                                                         and many more,                                                                                                                                       I                                                                                                                                                                     am                                                                                                                                                               truly                                                                                                                                                           thankful.

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I Read (& Taught From) Banned Books

banned_books1The Lord of the Rings, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lorax, The Diary of Anne Frank, Flowers for Algernon. What do these books have in common? At one time or another, I used parts of each of them in my middle school classroom. They are also included among books that have been banned.

I have never understood this type of censorship. I have always been permitted to read absolutely anything and everything.

One of my clearest childhood memories is of one of the few times I ever saw my mother mamatruly angry. We had just moved to a small town in Florida from an even smaller town in southern Ohio. I was nine and already reading on an eighth grade level, but I was small, so people usually assumed I was younger.

As a family of voracious readers, one of our first explorations in our new community included a visit to the public library. The librarian greeted us and issued our brand new library cards. As I eagerly began my search for treasure, the librarian touched my shoulder and directed me to a low shelf at the front of the library – one filled with picture books.

My mother quickly explained that I was older than I appeared and that I was capable of reading pretty much anything in the library. We were informed that I would only be permitted to check out books from that one shelf.

I knew there was trouble. When Mama is angry, her mouth becomes a thin line. When I looked at her, I couldn’t see her mouth at all! Her face became red and her hands were shaking. Let’s just say my mother and the librarian “had words”. The result? I happily went home with two of my current favorites – gothic romances by Victoria Holt.

Our family was very conservative in most respects, but not when it came to reading. I was allowed to read absolutely anything and everything. The only requirement was that Mama would read it too. I’m not certain how she felt about The Catcher in the Rye or Peyton Place, but I’m pretty certain that she really enjoyed Summer of ’42.

My parents understood that a good, solid education was not one that avoided controversial ideas. Words are only words, but when put together in particular ways, they can take you many places and only lead to questions which in turn will lead to more wonderful things to think about. Education never ends as long as there are questions. But if we only read what we already know, the questions end, and so does the learning. I am fortunate that my parents understood that.

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Images of 9/11


Crash. Near Pittsburgh. Somerset County. Shanksville. SHANKSVILLE!!!? No! It can’t be.

Several of my Facebook friends started posting the “Where were you when …” or  “What were you doing …” scenarios we so often share on a date commemorating a significant event. I started to participate and came to an emotional screeching halt. I really couldn’t remember exactly how or when I found out. That moment faded in the shadow of the information and the crashing emotions that were to follow.

I know where I was. Just as any Tuesday morning, I was in my classroom in the 8th grade Wizard hallway at Inverness Middle School. I would have been completing the usual morning tasks that take place in every 8th grade classroom. Attendance. Announcements. The BOCA (beginning of class activity) necessary to start class smoothly and keep some semblance of order.

The next thing I can honestly remember, and that in a blur, is trying to calm the hysterics developing among students who knew people in New York. Students who suddenly thought they remembered someone flying somewhere that day soon joined them in their panic. I have no idea how the World Trade Center information came to our notice. I only remember the aftermath.

The tension increased when the Interpreter for a hearing impaired student in my class realized that these flights had originated near her home in the north. She became pale and anxious, disturbing my hearing impaired student because he didn’t fully understand all that was happening. At this point, I’m sure I was relatively calm. I’m the type who remains calm during a crisis and falls apart later. I can be steady throughout unless it becomes personal. And soon, it did.

The news droned on in the background as I tried to deal with students’ questions and emotions. I heard something about a plane crash in a rural area. From this point, everything else fades and my actual memory of that day strikes me with a shiver, as if a cold hand had grabbed me by the back of my neck and sent icy fingers down my spine.

I heard the name Shanksville. They said Shanksville? Shanksville, Pennsylvania? A tiny town with a population less than the number of students at IMS. In fact, it’s population is less than the number of students in our 8th grade. That little town’s small population included my stepdaughter, Kimberly and 5 year old granddaughter, Alexis.

Early reports had the crash site in Shanksville. That thought was horrifying. If a plane that size came down in Shanksville, there would be no town left. The school where Alexis was attending kindergarten was in Shanksville. This news story was no longer a national crisis to me. It was a personal one. I suffer from a panic/anxiety disorder that comes on suddenly & takes some time to get under control. Fortunately, friends on the Wizard team were aware and were able to keep me as calm as possible until a break in our schedule would allow me to go to my husband’s classroom.

From that point, we were both upset. It helped some when news reports clarified the location of the crash site. It was in a field – a reclaimed strip mining site in the countryside. Property where my husband & his family had once lived. Wow.

We really didn’t feel much better until we had reached Kim by phone. Even then, the news was disturbing. The small office where she worked was a short distance down the road from the crash site. She heard it. She felt it. She went to it and was among the first people on the scene.

I honestly don’t know how the experience impacted Kim. She has really never shared much detail. I imagine it would be too difficult. I think it did leave its mark. For her, I believe that was one of those moments when your world shifts on its axis and you see things differently. I know that was when she seemed to mature dramatically and deal with the world differently. She learned that bad things sometimes come crashing from the sky right above you.

For me? I can’t think about 9/11 without remembering that chilling fear. The horror of the entire event, the impact on the families and survivors, the consequences for our nation – for me, these things pale somewhat when I am reminded of the fear I experienced when I thought people I cared for so deeply could have been lost to us.

So … the reason I did not participate in the “Where were you when … ” postings on FB. It was just too complicated. It was just too important. It deserved more.

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Kiser Family Original Homesite in Carter Caves State Park, Carter County Kentucky

DELIVERANCE!!!? “Inbreds”!!!!?

I cannot begin to tell you how offensive these depictions are to those of us from Appalachia.

Some of my friends and family think nothing of making derogatory remarks about my heritage. These same people would never make a racist joke, ridicule people based on their sexual preferences, or mock someone’s religious beliefs. But “hillbillies”? Fair game.

Even some of my family who really should know better make comments about being raised as “white trash” and make derogatory remarks about some elements of Appalachian culture. They are making an inheritance they should bear with great pride seem a legacy of absolute shame.

Family members, ones I love dearly and would never wish to harm or offend, have left me speechless with rage with offhand “funny” comments on social media sites. I’m sure they have no idea their comments offend. Comic strips like “Snuffy Smith” and “Lil’ Abner“, television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dukes of Hazard, and movies too numerous to mention have made the backward, ignorant hillbilly stereotype acceptable.

It is not acceptable.

The inhabitants of Appalachia are the descendants of our nation’s earliest pioneers. Daniel Boone was facing the “western wilderness” of Kentucky long before settlers set out to the lands beyond the Mississippi.

My people come from strong English, Scotch-Irish and German stock. I have ancestors who have fought proudly in every conflict since the French and Indian War. I can show you the military pension records for my kin who served in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and right through both World Wars.

Yes. Appalachia is poverty stricken. Most of my people were farmers or coal miners. Many scraped by on what they could raise themselves. Yet these same families managed to raise and educate their children. They have shown fierce loyalty to their families. It’s a culture which values knowing who “your people” are.

Mountain families pass on their traditions. Their folklore, music, art, and cuisine have left an imprint our American society as a whole. Their traditional values of God, family, and country are ones many people in our nation would love to instill in their own children.

Several years ago, I watched a documentary on PBS about Appalachian heritage. An interview with an elderly woman from West Virginia, one who reminded me of my own Aunt Mary, stuck with me. She said that the term “hillbilly” had no real meaning for her. Her family members were all “Mountain Williams”.

That is pride. It is not backward. It is not creepy or perverse. It is not ignorant. It is knowing who you are and who your people are. Appalachian culture has given you everything from NASCAR, and bluegrass music to biscuits and gravy. In place of ridicule, you might want to give thanks.

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First pass – An ongoing conversation.

There are so many topics in the news, but none I want to address right now. They all seem to take me back into “teacher mode” – the viewpoint I want to leave behind for awhile. This does not mean I won’t discuss education. I believe I will always be a teacher, even though I no longer stand in front of my middle school students each day. I cannot help but have strong opinions since so many decisions are made by people who have never been in a classroom.

For now, I want to go deeper. What am I beyond my profession? What matters to me? What will spark my creativity and take me to new heights? I guess I’ll just have to wait . . . and dream.

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