Photo from Karen Alexander-Stoeckel of her Grandma, Ocie Hance-Alexander (in blue dress) with her brothers and sisters at the gravesites of their parents, Greeny and Dora Hance. Needmore Cemetery, Arkansas.
Beginning this weekend people throughout the area will engage in the decades old tradition of Decoration Days, placing flowers on the graves of their loved ones and transforming the cemeteries into vibrant landscapes of color. The very first column, which ran in May of last year, was about this tradition and how it can connect families and communities across generations, reminding us that, as long as we keep their stories alive, the dead are always with us.
I asked others to share their stories and a woman here in Arkansas mailed the column to her niece, Karen Alexander-Stoeckel in Cambira, California. This past week Karen contacted me by email to share her beautiful story, and she said I could share it with you all.
Her father Virgil “Odell” Alexander was born in Casa in 1929 to Robert Alexander and Ocie Hance-Alexander, and as a child he “loved to hunt in the hills with his coonhounds and bring wildlife home to tame as pets.” At the age of five, he picked cotton to supplement the family’s income, later working in a lumber mill near Petit Jean. In 1953 he moved to California where he began work in the dairy business. He and his wife had five sons and one daughter, Karen. Here is how she describes her relationship to Decoration Days:
My brothers and I were born and raised in California and Arkansas seemed like a distant planet to us. The stories my daddy shared with us were rich with lessons he had learned and the love of his Hance and Alexander family. As children, we only made a few trips back east to visit our grandparents because Daddy’s work schedule was so demanding. I remember the well on the back porch of Grandma’s house and how cold and sweet the water was. The fireflies in her front yard were a sight I’ve never seen anywhere else.
The letters from home were precious to my daddy. He prized the photos that his mama would send every year that were taken on Decoration Day at the Needmore Cemetery. Photos of relatives in their Sunday best and women wearing corsages , standing or sitting near grave sites that were splendid with flowers. As a child I did not understand my daddy’s fondness for these pictures of grave sites and was too young to appreciate the culture they derived from.
Grandma and Grandpa are gone now and so are the letters and photos from home on Decoration Day. The relatives who gathered in those old pictures are also gone or soon will be and the love of my life, my daddy, passed away last October. My brothers and I are having a memorial service for him here in California and then I will be bringing his ashes home to Arkansas where he requested they be laid to rest.
When I come to Arkansas, I will be attending my very first Decoration Day at Needmore Cemetery and words cannot express how emotional I feel about being near so many of my family laid to rest there. Because of the oral history my daddy passed down to his children, I will not merely be reading names on headstones but remembering that my great-great grandfather, John Henry Alexander was remembered as being able to “sit a good horse” and walked every day down to the general store with the aid of his cane to enjoy talking, whittling, chewing tobacco and in general passing the time of day. I have gathered bouquets of Lavender from my back yard and I have them drying to take with me to Needmore Cemetery to be lain in honor and respect to all those who lived before and are now rejoicing with my daddy.
I’m bringing my camera too. Like my dear grandmother of years past, I intend to share and cherish these photos with my family in California. My daddy’s legacy of home and family lives on through my nine year old granddaughter who recently stated that if given any place in the world to visit, she chose Arkansas where my Papa is buried.
She signed the email, “Looking forward to visiting your wonderful state and celebrating Decoration Day soon.” What’s your Decoration Day story? What does the tradition mean to you? I’d love to hear from you, see your photos, and share your stories with readers. And I am so honored Karen allowed me share her beautiful story here.