Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were rather poor and there was never a place we returned to that was home.
My mama was born in the community of Gratis, which is in the northern part of Walton County. There is a little crossroads there and nearby is the Center Hill Baptist Church. To the best of my knowledge there are about four generations of family buried there.
When they began the process of opening a post office there in 1893, the residents found that no money was required to do so. They wanted to call the community Free. However, folks at the Post Office Department in Washington decided that Gratis was a better post office name. Some of my relatives have said that most folks there were so poor that if it wasn’t free, they couldn’t afford it.
My maternal grandfather, Harold Stone and my grandmother, Daisy Dillard Stone, are buried there. I never knew my grandmother, but had a few years to enjoy my grandfather. As I sat in the church last Sunday, I can remember that he always sat near the back. He also brought a coffee can, stuffed with paper, to use as a spittoon. I’m not sure but I believe he chewed a little during church.
My great-grandfather, Atticus Bunyan Dillard, is also buried there. He died on May 30, 1971, and is wearing long underwear beneath his suit. My mama went down to Lewis and Lewis, a dry goods store in downtown Monroe. Mr. Lewis Whitley went out to his non-air conditioned warehouse to retrieve a pair of long handles on the eve of summer. It was what Granddaddy Dillard wanted.
I think his name, Atticus Bunyan Dillard, is a rather Southern sounding moniker. It sounds like the name of a tall giant, which he wasn’t. He was just a notch over 5 feet tall. My grandmother Stone, who died 13 years before I was born, had an equally Southern name, Daisy Belle.
Also buried in the family plot is a baby sister I never knew. She lived just one August day in 1946.
There are a lot of family and friends in that old church cemetery. Over the years, we have made that annual pilgrimage to Gratis. Many of the folks who were the pillars of that community are now gone. There were a lot of men and women who were cousins, aunts and uncles. I’m not quite sure how that family tree spreads out, but in a small place like this there were lots of kinfolk.
One of those names I love is the one that some of the older folks have given me.
“You’re Betty’s boy, aren’t you?” said one older lady as I walked in with my bowl of creamed corn for the after-church dinner. I’m 58 years old and it is fine with me to be called “boy” on one day out of the year. They do the same thing to my cousin, Wayne, who is about 20 years ahead of me.
I think that place is so special because it holds so many memories. I can see the faces of family members who are now departed. Sometimes it was at Sunday services and other times, it was as we said goodbye to one of our clan.
I can see us walking up that old gravel driveway behind the hearse in that final pilgrimage.
For me, that won’t be my resting place. I’ve lived in Gainesville longer than anywhere in my life and they will plant me somewhere in Hall County. But I do look forward to the day when I’ll see that my Gratis family once again.Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear Sundays.