Warm weather means it’s time to ride motorcycles, something I’ve enjoyed since I was six years old. When many of my friends from there in the Delta headed to Ole Miss after high school, they took their Labrador Retrievers with them. I took a motorcycle, and on the weekends rode every inch of Sardis.
Today, my motorcycle travels usually consist of riding the backroads of the Delta, and every now and then, I’ll pass through my hometown of Shelby. However, I try to limit my visits there because seeing the Shelby of today compared to the Shelby of my youth is just too painful – the town has deteriorated that much. But, whenever I do pass through, it is never without a visit to the cemetery located west of town.
My first stop is at the resting place of my great-uncle, J.W. Thomas, who played a significant roll in my upbringing.
J.W. (July 29, 1899 – December 3, 1986) never had children, and I was the closest he had to a son. To this day, I benefit from his love, support and direction. When I’m facing a tough decision, I’ll often ask myself, “what would J.W. do?” In my mind I’ll hear his advice, but because of my stubbornness, I rarely take it and when I don’t, I always misstep. Uncle J.W. often said, “Life is full of mud puddles. You have to learn how to walk around them and not through them.” He was educated at two different boarding schools up north and then capped off his education at Sewanee.
During World War II, J.W. was an officer in the Air Force and lived in New York City where he was friends with Igor Sikorsky (inventor of the helicopter) and Walt Disney. In fact, he often visited Disney out in Beverly Hills. J.W. and his wife, my great-aunt, Elizabeth Kirk (April 3, 1905 – January 12, 1986), died 11 months apart. While they have been gone for 31 years now, a day doesn’t pass that I don’t think about them. When my time comes, I’ll be buried next to J.W.
Across the way is my grandfather’s resting place, Charles Scott Morrison (June 18, 1893 – December 9, 1974), and my grandmother, Ruth Thomas Morrison (November 27, 1896 – August 26, 1983).
Grandfather Scott was the mayor and judge of Shelby for 41 years. When he was around 11 years old and living in Memphis, he lost his father, mother and sister. Scott was then “shipped” (as he described it) down to Merigold to be raised with his cousin, Jimmy Smith. He was dedicated to Shelby and when Scott wasn’t running the town, he was running the old Shelby Gin. My grandmother, Ruth, was a typical loving grandmother. I never saw her angry, and I never heard her make a grammatical mistake.
My great-grandparents, John W. Thomas, Sr., (March 9, 1857 – June 13, 1923) and Ellen Palmer Thomas (January 25, 1877 – May 3, 1958) are buried next to Ruth and Scott.
Great-grandfather Thomas came to Shelby from Ford, Virginia, in 1880 without a nickel to his name. Despite only having an eighth grade education, he worked hard and bought Delta land eventually becoming a large cotton farmer. Great-grandfather Thomas was 20 years older than my great-grandmother who was from Jackson, Tennessee. Ellen’s family was financially wiped out during the Civil War. Her family landed her on my great-grandfather’s front door step, and they married. In 1923, great-grandfather Thomas was crossing the railroad tracks south of Shelby in his Model A Ford when a train bulldozed into him. My great-uncle arrived at the scene by horseback a few moments after it happened. Several men pulled my great-grandfather from the car and loaded him onto the same train that hit him. The train then sped away headed to a hospital in Memphis. He floated in and out of consciousness giving instructions to my great-uncle as to how to run the various businesses. He died as they reached Memphis. My great-grandmother, Ellen, lived another 35 years and never remarried.
My last stop in the cemetery is a visit with my father and sister.
Gabrielle Coopwood (August 17, 1955 – December 13, 1958) died three years before I came along. She was born with Spina Bifida and never came home from the hospital. My parents immediately moved her to a special home for children who suffered from Spina Bifida in Houston, Texas. My father, Dr. Gene Lewis Coopwood (February 27, 1928 – January 13, 2011), is buried next to her.
Daddy was a standout football player for the Clarksdale Wildcats and after high school, he played football at Mississippi State. From there, he worked for my mother’s family in Shelby managing their farming operations, hardware store, gin and other businesses. At 35 years old, he decided to go to dental school. But, before he could apply, he had to renew his science courses. Every morning at sunrise, he drove out to the farm and made sure the workers were headed to the fields. Then, he attended class at Delta State until lunch. After that, he was back out on the farm, and at night he hit the books. Daddy went to dental school in Memphis and graduated at age 40. He practiced in Shelby for several decades before he retired. He was a World War II Marine and was tough as nails. He loved the woods, football and fishing. Thankfully, I was at his bedside holding his hand when he took his last breath.
After making the family rounds in the cemetery, I’ll make a quick walkthrough to visit a few friends I grew up with who left too soon.
It must be a Southern thing, spending time in a cemetery visiting loved ones and friends. I know many who make regular trips to the cemetery on Sundays to see family members. They say the writer Willie Morris often visited William Faulkner’s grave in Oxford. I’ve seen photos of Willie leaning up against Faulkner’s grave with one hand partially covering his forehead as if the weight of the world rests on his shoulders.
My family has been sleeping a long time now in that cemetery, however when I’m visiting them, I’ll close my eyes and hear their voices and laughter as the life I lived with them replays in my mind like a movie.
As strange as it may sound, I find great comfort in that cemetery, and I always leave with a smile.
Scott Coopwood is a seventh-generation Deltan who lives in Cleveland, Mississippi with his wife Cindy and their three children. Scott is the publisher and owner of Delta Magazine, one of the South’s leading lifestyle publications, the Delta Business Journal, the first business publication in the Mississippi Delta; and Cleveland’s weekly newspaper, The Cleveland Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.