I can’t recall the first time I went to Cowlake. I am certain it was as a very young child and the first occasion was one of celebration in some sort of fashion. Perhaps a birthday, perhaps a friendly visit or a potluck dinner. Whatever the occasion, I am certain it involved family. Family by blood, by marriage, or an extended family. This remote locale isn’t a place most would happen upon by chance. It is almost as if it is at the end of the trail. Peaceful, serene and perfectly shaded by a conglomeration of trees on a slight incline. The perfect place for a picnic or celebration.
As I grew older, the visits to Cowlake usually came with another purpose, often to bid farewell to a loved one. As a freshman in high school, a trip to Cowlake meant the burial of an infant cousin. As a freshman in college it meant farewell to a precious aunt. Two years later a trip to bury someone far too young for his time. As the circle of life has continued, so have the frequency in my trips to Cowlake. What has been so special about this spot is that the final earthly resting place of each loved one is dug by hand. On the days of their loved ones’ homegoings, family members meet early to do the task at hand. Everything is precise and pristine. After the service is over and final goodbyes are said, the tent providing shelter from the weather is removed. The loved one is lowered in the ground and the final act of love begins. A collection of shovels stands on the pile of dirt removed from the ground and waiting to cover the earth again. One shovel is always placed higher than the rest in honor of the recently departed. The family begins the duty. Usually the children of the loved one begin, then the brothers, nephews, grandchildren, nieces and so forth. All take part in this ritual, this amazing ritual that holds so much love and respect. As a young girl, I remember witnessing this for the first time and commenting to my mother about it. I was in awe. I had not witnessed such in my young life. I remember my mother’s quick response, “Maddens take care of their own.”
As I made the trip to Cowlake again this weekend to say goodbye once more, my heart swelled with precious memories of those who were lying beneath the shade trees and those who lived and now rest not so far from this place. These were the people who shaped my childhood, who made amazing memories with me as a youngster, who taught me lessons of faith, love and family by example that I will always cherish. These were the people who blessed me by showing what amazing things come from big families, extended families with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and neighbors in small rural places. As someone reminded us all while standing in the shade Saturday, great people have come from small places like this influence many other places around the world. The people from this place are no exception. And while we were still standing there among the trees the phrase was once again repeated, “Taking care of our own.” Through the years I have witnessed these shovels throwing dirt in agony and despair, in bittersweetness that the loved one is no longer suffering, with deep sadness, but always with an unwavering love. What a wonderful tribute to know that your family literally takes care of you from the cradle to the grave. What a great act of love. To watch this literally stirs my soul with such emotion I can barely contain. As the final shovel is thrown, the refreshment begins. Cool watermelon is cut and shared. It is as though the fruit serves to soothe the soul of its pain on this day. Some may view this a macabre, but this simple act is so pure and true to signify the deepest of respect. I am sure this tradition began in the days of old when we were not so accustomed to air conditioning and other creature comforts. You can feel this ritual is steeped in history in this place.
As a drove away I had such a sense of gratitude for my family, my extended family, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my big family. How special it was to come from such a family that celebrated so many holidays and special occasions together. How lucky was I to have come from people who endured hardships with unshakable faith in The Maker and undying love of family.