“It is not that I belong to the past, but the past that belongs to me.” ~Mary Antin
Summer visits to see Grandparents always included trips to cemeteries where family members were buried. This ritual may seem strange to some, but for us it is perfectly normal. As Southerners we are firmly rooted in the past and the lives of those who came before us. Although the relatives are long dead their history is infused with our current lives. To know the past gives us the understanding of who we are and our purpose in life.
Recently I made my way to the Milligan Springs Baptist Church located a few miles north of Highway 82 between Stewart and Winona, MS. I arrived thankful that Google Maps on my phone knew where I was and where I wanted to be. I had double checked the map before I left the hotel and knew if I came into Stewart I had gone too far. Sure enough I did and had to re-group. The car GPS wasn’t able to pick up the small country cross roads, so the phone saved me. After I found the turn off for Milligan Springs I realized why I had missed it – it was marked by an average size street sign that wasn’t visible across the median of a four-lane highway.
I was also thankful that the road is now paved at least as far as the church. As a child I remember that the turn off wasn’t marked. My grandparents just knew where to turn off the main highway (which in that day was still a dangerous two-lane highway). In later years I remembered a hand painted sign surrounded by kudzu that heralded the turn for Milligan Springs. Today there is a sign, albeit small, and a paved road.
Many of my grandmother’s family are buried here and after so many trips I had thought I would walk right to every grave. Wrong! As I entered the gate I was surprised at how big the cemetery is and realized I had no idea where to look. When I spotted several recent graves I realized that they are still burying people there today and that accounted for the larger than remembered size. Sadly, I was to recognize names I knew on the newer graves.
The afternoon was warm and I had no hat and even though it seemed like a hopeless search I had the idea to walk to the back and along the way began to get my bearings. I found the graves I was looking for and then remembered that I had not brought any flowers. I made pictures and lamented the weathering of several headstones that made them almost unreadable.
As a child I had asked my grandmother about these rocks dotted throughout the cemetery. She explained that people were buried there long ago, but no one remembered who they were. The lost identities always fascinated me and I would wonder who they were and all the usual questions that run through my mind. I’m sure that these rocks were larger when I was younger and wondered if someday they will disappear.
I would have liked to linger for a while, but the only shade was under some trees next to the church and I knew better than to walk across the grass only wearing shorts (there’s nasty little chiggers in there). As I got back in the car I remembered that this was my grandmother’s church growing up. This is where she found her Savior and grew up as a God fearing woman. She left in the 1920’s to teach school in Webster County and married my grandfather there in 1925. Although I asked her many questions about her life I never thought to ask her about this little church. I do remember on one visit that after we left the cemetery she directed whoever was driving down one of the little roads and showed us where her childhood home had been. The only thing I remember was that it was as you came around a curve in the gravel road.
There was no one around that afternoon so I had the solitude to myself. I wondered if they still hold services regularly. The church and cemetery grounds are immaculate, well cared for and showing signs that people care about this place which made me feel good. Just like the annual summer visits long ago I knew that I had done well that afternoon to visit again and pay respects to those who have lived before me.