After my dad died, I had not been to the gravesite for many reasons over the last 27 years. As I came to terms with my dad’s death, matured and now with the fact that I had something to come back to Murray for, it was time for me to see my dad’s grave while on my trip. I told my childhood friend Jason that I remembered the name “Sinking Springs” as the cemetery. He had asked me if my dad were buried in the Murray Cemetery, but for some reason, I remembered the name Sinking Springs so we headed there to find my dad’s grave.
The cemetery was small and I wondered after all these years how so few had been buried there as we walked along all the rows of grave stones searching for “Jeffrey”. I saw the “Morton” headstone - my mama’s family. I saw my grandparents, my aunt and uncles and a cousin’s stone, but did not see Jeffrey anywhere. I took photos for Mama to have and we combed through the rows of graves looking for my dad. My heart sank as the day was ending and I knew that if I were wrong, we would not have time to go to the Murray Cemetery. Jason called his dad who was a pall bearer at my dad’s funeral and he informed Jason that Daddy was buried in the Murray Cemetery. Jason assured me that we would go the next day. I had been afraid that I only had one day to drive around to see all the places, but Jason made sure that the whole trip was about me and my memories. He made me feel so special.
We drove by the place where the cousin I had forgotten that I had was working. Rob was riding a piece of heavy equipment and saw Jason’s truck pull in. As Rob pulled the riding machine closer to the truck, Jason hollered out of the window and asked Rob if he wanted to see one of his cousins. To that, Rob was intrigued and shut the loud motor off and I went to give him a hug.
We went inside his office to talk and we laughed with each other. The only thing I remembered about Rob was when my sisters had said that he ‘was a meanie’ because he pulled their hair. He isn’t one to get on social media or keep in touch with any family who moved away, but I could tell that he was glad to have a cousin pop in to see him. Rob told Jason where my other grandparents’ house was and we drove past it before heading back to Jason’s house to meet Peggy and Nelson and go out to dinner.
When they arrived, we all left in Jason’s truck to go to the award-winning “Patti’s 1880 Settlement” in Grand Rivers, Ky., not too far from Murray. This place was like a whole village. There were Christmas lights everywhere! My first night in Murray, Jason had taken me to a park and we drove around looking at Christmas lights just like at Patti’s. It reminded me of the way Rock City in Chattanooga dresses up for the holidays. It would be interesting to see this place in daylight and ‘undressed’ during a normal time of the season.
Jason and I went through a few of the shops while Peggy and Nelson sat on a bench and waited for our table. The lights were colored lights just as I remembered as a little girl. I always liked to decorate with white lights on my Christmas tree as an adult, but Mama always liked the colored lights. I was beginning to see the ‘roots’ thing coming up again. It seemed that most of Murray used the colored lights when decorating for Christmas and… it was beautiful.
This restaurant was ‘dry’ so Peggy had brought some champagne and we toasted each other and ordered. Jason got the steak Oliver and I got the chicken Oliver. It was delicious food. I asked about goat cheese in any dishes at any nearby restaurants and they had not heard of that. I realized that Murray may not be where Chattanooga is as far as dining, but the places I went throughout the trip, I really enjoyed.
I loved how Patti’s handled an anniversary of a couple sitting nearby. The staff gathered around and sang “Let me call you Sweetheart”. That was nice and Peggy sang along too. It was a good evening out with Jason’s folks and when we headed back, Peggy noticed how her son and I held hands and were looking at each other.
The next day, after ‘playing with the kids’ again, we headed out for another day of tracing my roots. We drove to Benton, Ky. - which is very close to Murray (it seemed the town on the skirts of Murray were all a stone’s throw away) and pulled up to Hutchen’s Barbecue. I remembered as a little girl that we had to stop in Benton for a barbecue any time we traveled from Lexington to Murray. It was labeled by Daddy, as ‘the best barbecue’ and… he was right.
Walking in, I felt as though I stepped out of a time machine. It was exactly as I remembered it as a little girl. Even the people seemed the same as they called out, “How’er y’all?” I just love Kentucky. There was a time in my adulthood when I moved away from my Kentucky roots where people used the words “y’all” and “honey” and where people were just down-home, simple folk. I got into the arts, fine dining and more sophisticated things in life and thought I had ‘risen above’ my raising with the modest Kentucky country life.
As I looked around at these people in the restaurant, I saw good folk. I looked at Jason and myself and we fit right in. The good thing I have noticed is Jason and I are cut from the same cloth. Simple Kentucky folk, but we also have class. We come from good families who were/are well respected in Murray. Jason can put on a suit for the office or a board meeting and he can schmooze with whomever he is surrounded by, but he can also throw on a pair of jeans, drive his truck and genuinely be on anyone’s level – because he is like me in seeing that people are all the same. No one person is better than another. Jason will sing along with his Pavarotti CD (my favorite opera singer) as well as turning on a little country or Bluegrass. This match is truly amazing and everything I had hoped for.
We left Hutchen’s and went to the Murray Cemetery. On the way, we passed a billboard with Jason and his business partner’s picture on it advertising their firm. It was almost as if he were ‘watching over my Daddy’. Jason had made a few calls to find out exactly where my dad’s grave was because the Murray Cemetery was much bigger. We drove straight to it and got out of the truck. I remembered my sisters having to pull me to Daddy’s casket at the funeral because my legs would not move. I wasn’t sure how I would do several years later as an adult, but Jason was with me all the way.
He was ready to give me privacy or to stay by my side. I wanted him next to me. I had to touch the stone so it would be real for me. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to say so many things but I kept it short and told him that Jason was with me. I was proud. I told him that I had been becoming everything that I knew he would want me to be and that I had remembered everything he taught me even if it took a while for me to learn – that I never forgot his words. I shed a few tears and Jason and I started back toward the truck. I didn’t want to leave. It wasn’t a scary, morbid place. It was beautiful and it was where my daddy was. I felt a belonging. I knew that would not be the last time I visit and that I had a lot more to say. As a believer, I know Daddy is in Heaven and talking to him is more for my benefit… but maybe God will let him hear me anyway.
Next, we headed to Main Street and walked around the town. Jason and I walked to where we thought my grandfather’s store was at Shan Lee’s. We walked inside and, of course, everything was different, but I could see where things used to be and it was familiar to me. Jason explained to the salesperson about us retracing memories and she pointed us to a woman named Judy who may be able to tell us if this was my grandfather’s store.
Judy said that she bought my grandfather’s store, but it was a few stores down and she sold it and formed her store in the location where we were. I remembered as a little girl my sisters and I would sometimes go into the wrong store because they all looked the same. It was good that Judy had not changed the place much because I could relate to the memories of my grandfather’s store in her place even though it was not the exact spot. When we walked a few stores down, “Jeffrey’s Clothing” was now “Ryan Walker’s State Farm Agency” and everything was remodeled differently. The other place felt more like what I remembered, but it was still good to see.
I had been to every place that I wanted to see and felt that this trip was more than I had planned for it to be. God just knows the right time to put people and places in our paths. It was so nice to see Jason in my path once again and for everything to come together like pieces to a puzzle - familiar pieces that fit snuggly into my heart.
We went to see Jason’s dad Bob and his wife Jeanie. He had not changed much either and was still as handsome as I remembered. We shared a few memories and Bob told stories of playing golf with my daddy. Even though Daddy had polio, he held onto one crutch and took a powerful swing with one arm and could drive the ball impressively. Daddy had a big chest and strong arms and he left people with lasting visions of his physical achievements.
Afterward, we went to Jason’s brother’s house. Two of my older sisters had always had a crush on Robert. When he greeted us at the door he looked as handsome as the rest of the Billington men. Robert was still in his suit and it was weird seeing the ‘little boy’ (now a politician) all grown up! He showed us his lovely home and I got to meet his son Houston. We talked about memories that he had of my daddy teaching him to play chess and always beating him. Nobody could beat my daddy in chess. I love the game too and taught my sons how to play.
We left Robert’s and met up with Jason’s friends Mark, Mandee, Denny and Leslie. We went to “Jasmine’s Thai and Sushi Bar” and Jason and I shared a sushi roll and ordered a meal to follow. I had a horrible headache but did my best to get to know his friends and I could tell they really thought a lot of Jason.
The next day I packed my bags and Jason and I went to Rudy’s for breakfast. Rudy’s was another place in Murray that hadn’t changed. Mama told me she still remembers that they had the best hamburgers. After a good ol’ Kentucky breakfast of country ham and eggs, Jason and I went back to the house and loaded up my car. We already had planned to meet for New Year’s and, when his friend Denny invited us to the Titans game on the 29th, the plan was made that Jason and I will meet in Nashville for the Titans game and then he will follow me back to Chattanooga to spend New Year’s Eve.
Tracing my roots was more than just bringing back a few memories. I remember thinking about roots this year as I interviewed many Chattanoogans who had several ties here. Many people had deep roots and it left me feeling that something was missing in my own life. My roots. Roots are more important than I ever knew and I have been embracing my desire to get grounded in them while embracing who I am and who I was. I don’t know quite what my future holds, but I am enjoying the journey. The End.
Or… just the beginning…