August 8, 2018

My Uncle J.B. painted this sign.  He was famous for painting homemade signs and building things.  He left the A out of Y'all, but that's alright, because he did manage to fit "Be Good" on at the end and that is something he championed, being good.  He loved his bride Betty and his children and grandchildren in a way that I have never witnessed in any other family.  He flat sure loved his tomato gravy making Mama and she sure did love him.

As much as my Uncle J.B. loved the living, he revered the dead. The Blackwater Cemetery, situated 1.3 miles off of Highway 4 in Bradley, Alabama,  is home to the graves of my great, great, great, great grandparents buried in the early 1800s.

Our people's stories are written on the 250 year old marble stones at Blackwater.   Our reason for being, it is buried there. Our blood came from the people in that sandy ground. Their struggles and their triumphs were passed down to us and we have gladly carried the mantle.

Those Henleys, Gatewoods, and Sweeneys  were strong people, with big families and even bigger hearts.  Their infant babies whom lived hours, and some days, are buried along side of their mothers.  Every time I see those tiny slabs, I wonder how many silent tears were cried in that graveyard after working the fields, cooking meals for ten plus people, tending to skirt-pulling children, and milking cows.

I cried millions of tears over a child that never was, so I cannot imagine burying a full-term infant and having to immediately go back to farm life.  Women didn't talk about their angst and pain in the 1800s,  life was about survival.  People were tougher, their wills were stronger, and there was no time to look back.  Looking back only allowed doubt to creep in, and survival had no place for doubt.  They got out of bed, made a wood-burning stove full of biscuits and gravy, and got on with living.

A short piece from the Blackwater Cemetery is the Blackwater River.   I have often wondered why cemeteries are often found near water.  I have heard spiritualist say that water is a conductor for the spirit world.  Maybe the Celts who came over in the 1600s brought that mythology with them?  I don't know much about all of that, but I do feel closer to my people at Blackwater than anywhere else.

The water in Blackwater is ice cold.  The smell of the sand is raw and fresh.  The bottom sand of the Blackwater is the purest in North America, and I can personally attest that there is nothing softer between your toes than the squishy bottom of our beloved swimming hole.

Although the name is Blackwater, it isn't black at all.  The ice cold water coursing through the perfect sand is the color of sweet tea and Baptisms on summer Sundays.  Driftwood and fallen trees, that have been in the same places since my Grandmother was a child,  have made diving boards and places to carve the initials of your sweetheart.  The rushing water of the Blackwater River is the final sound we all hear before putting someone we love to rest there.  It is the sound of our childhood memories with our cousins, the sound of picnics and cemetery cleanings, and if we do a good job passing down our heritage, it will be the place where our stories are told five generations from now.

Uncle J.B. is gone now.  He never drank or smoked, and maybe cussed twice in his whole life.  He loved one woman.  He worked every day like it was his last.  He loved with everything he had.  And still, lung cancer took him much too soon.

Ed Lee passed on a few years ago.   He must have been my fourth or fifth cousin but was one of my favorites.  He always called me "Good Looking" and when I gained weight as I entered my thirties, he would say "You're still good looking, but you need to come back looking like yourself next year."  Ed Lee had the biggest smile and maybe the biggest teeth I have ever seen on someone his size.  He beamed happiness from twenty feet away.  His grin, his laugh, and his hugs were infectious. Ed loved J.B. and J.B. loved him and together, they were the caretakers of our heritage.

Tom- Thomas Earle, passed away last year and I regret that I didn't visit him more often than I did.  Thomas Earle- pronounced Tomaserl- helped Uncle J.B. bury his best friend, Pup, in a pasteboard box.  They had a Little Rascals style funeral when they were about ten years old, complete with little girl mourners in their Sunday bests.  All of the little girls wailed and nearly fainted when the bottom fell out of that box as they laid Ol' Pup in the ground.

Thomas Earle later went on to become the song leader and fill-in preacher at the Bradley Church.  He had an infectious, happy smile and knew the words to every single song in the Red Church Hymnal. Like any good Pentecostal does, he marked the song page with two fingers, held the song book closed with his thumb and other two fingers and beat it with his other hand to keep time, old school.  He always slicked his reddish hair back in a Pompedour that curled on top like the Gerber baby.  He had a mole on his chin that I once asked my Grandmother about and she said "Why would he have that removed?  That's his personality."  I never asked again.

Riley is the last man standing.  He is my Grandmother's first cousin.  I need to check on Riley as well.  I haven't been nearly as good as Uncle J.B. would have probably liked me to be- checking on my relatives- but I am going to do better. As much as I love to visit them at Blackwater, now is probably as good of a time as any to visit the living.

I think when I go home this weekend, I will be good and wonder what J.B. would do this weekend?  He would probably visit kin folks that live near Blackwater, slip a hundred-dollar bill in some old widow woman's hand, kiss her on the cheek and say, "Now you be good- you sweet, purdy little thing."

We only have so many days, we have to love on our people while they are still here.

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