Some glad morning when this life is o’er
I’ll fly away
We pull up to the Nickells Churchhouse early on Memorial Day morning and park at the base of the hill, near the outhouse. It’s the only parking spot left in the field surrounding the small yellow brick building. The annual service has just begun and family is still rolling in, their vehicles thundering down the sleepy red-dirt road and bringing it to life. In the chapel, under the stern auspices of a cross and the nineteenth century portraits of Andrew and China Nickell, the original patriarch and matriarch of this close-knit family, a great-great-great-grandson is preaching a hellfire and brimstone sermon to dozens of his closest relatives. The “amens” ring out from a rapt audience that seems oddly comforted by his disconcerting rhetoric.
To a home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away
Those of us who have arrived late walk in just as another great-great-great-grandson begins a prayer. He thanks God for those that are here and those who have gone before, and offers a special prayer for the family members who have passed away since last year’s gathering. He recalls his father, the erstwhile family preacher, who always closed his Memorial Day sermons with an altar call and a reminder that this time might be the last time we saw him or each other again. We are implored to find hope in Jesus and in the knowledge of Glory, and we are told to discover strength in the expectation of eternal life held closely in the arms of our Lord, far away from the struggles and constant hardships this family has known over the generations it has spent in the hills.
As I listen to the latest iteration of the same sermon I have heard for as long as I can remember, I wonder for how many more generations this message will ring true. Much of the family has moved past the individualistic, self-sufficient farmer’s life of the valley to suburbs and cities across the country. The preacher’s call to accept the salvation of our Lord and Savior now, before he comes again, rings through pews filled with college students, football players, farmers, soldiers, teachers, and software engineers. The only thing that still binds us all together are the familial graves on the hill and the deep connection to the land that they represent. They are icons of a common memory and a common sorrow.
I’ll fly away, O Glory
I’ll fly away (in the morning)
For the first time in my memory, the three sisters who traditionally lead off the next phase of the service, the hymn sing, are only two. Before they begin, they express their thankfulness that their departed sister is with Jesus, that she is in that eternal comfort, that she is free from sorrow and pain. Their warbling, soaring rendition of I’ll Fly Away, pulled directly from the pages of the Heavenly Highway Hymnal, seems rawer this year.
After they finish, each branch of the family is invited up in turn to contribute a hymn. In past years, my sister and I have played piano-violin duets (piano-fiddle to this crowd). This year, we haven’t prepared anything and neither, apparently, has anyone else in the Paschal branch. One of my uncles finally calls out a hymn number. Twenty of us crowd around one microphone and sing straight off the page, off-key and without accompaniment. It is not a good showing for the Paschals in this unofficial family competition.
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away
The service concludes, and we all head outside. A potluck is spread for the next phase of the gathering. Memorial Day doubles as an annual reunion of our far-flung extended family whose roots lie here in the hills of Hazel Valley. I introduce myself over and over as Greg’s daughter, John’s granddaughter, Bonnie’s great-granddaughter. Relatives whose faces are more familiar than their names ask me about college (“how’re those Yankees?”) and boyfriends (“how many you got?”). One of them tells my dad that I’ve “got that Paschal look” to me, and I’m not sure whether to take that as a compliment or not.
As the meal and conversation die down, folks start packing up their coolers and try to pawn off the last of the chocolate pie on someone else’s kids. It is time to begin the pilgrimage to the cemetery, the last part of the ritual that brings us together year after year. A stream of people and vehicles fills the rutty, steep gravel road that connects the chapel to the gravesites. Some people hop in the beds of pickup trucks to ride up, others sit on the bumpers of vans. My immediate family walks like we always have, up to the hill where the bodies of our relatives have been laid to rest for centuries in the same land that raised them.
When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
The cemetery is bordered by a small chain-link fence and a rusting white trellis that marks the entrance. By the time we make it up, small crowds of people have congregated around all of the more recent gravestones, bundles of flowers and wreaths in hand. We head to our corner on the edge of the hill, where my uncle, great-grandparents, and great-aunts are buried. As we do every year, my dad and his brothers take a picture by the grave of my uncle, and my cousins and I do the same; these are the most complete family pictures we have. We place flowers at the foot of the gravestones. After a few unprompted moments of silence, conversation slowly picks back up again.
Like a bird from prison bars has flown
I’ll fly away
My cousins pull me away to wander around the rest of the cemetery. Some of the oldest hand-carved gravestones are now unreadable after over a century of weathering harsh tornadoes and blizzards. There are a heartbreaking number of chipped old stones dating from the early 1900s that memorialize infants, children, and young mothers for whom the hard life of the hills proved deadly. The same surnames – Nickell, Paschal – repeat over and over again. Almost without exception, each gravestone has a Bible verse or a cross carved into it.
This place refuses to let me forget that these were and are my people. The culture of hymn singing, potlucking, preaching and this religious connection to the land is something that I may try to leave behind but that will always, inescapably, be at the core of who I am. As we walk through the graves, I wonder how different my life is, really, from the lives of the generations buried here. I spend most of the year 1500 miles away, in an exciting urban community of activists, atheists, city folk, and people who would never be caught dead in a place like this, and yet I’ve come to realize that, like everyone else at this service, though I may leave the valley behind I’ll always be drawn to return.
Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
I separate from the crowd of cousins and wander over to the chain-link fence that separates the cemetery from the endless surrounding carpet of spring-green trees. It’s one of the highest points in the valley, and from here I’ve always felt like I could see the entire world if only I looked hard enough.
The sun’s rays through the dissipating rain clouds bathe the hills in a surreal haze. Overlooking the valley below, I feel like this is the closest to heaven we the living might get. From here, the hills look almost identical to the way they did in the 1850s, when the first Nickell was laid to rest in this final familial gathering place. The rose bush planted at that first grave still blooms.
To a land where joy shall never end
I’ll fly away
Olivia Paschal was born and mostly raised in Rogers, Arkansas (which, she would like everyone to know, is in fact a Southern state). She misses the starry nights and colorful autumns of the Ozarks, but while in New Haven she’s happy to be far away from the smell of manure – cow, chicken, or otherwise. Send her an email at email@example.com.
*Music: “I’ll Fly Away” by the Kossoy Sisters, from the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. These Fifty States does not own the rights to this music.