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We drove back home last week. Mama, my sister Terri and I made the almost 100-mile trip to Marked Tree, a small town in the Arkansas Delta about an hour west of Memphis.

Our first stop was Marked Tree Cemetery, established in 1911. The more than 3,300 graves now outnumber the town's population of 2,473.

We drove through the black arched gates, parked and walked a few yards to the tree-shaded area where Daddy's remains were buried Sept. 7, 2019, three days after he died at age 91.

Mama placed a bouquet of yellow sunflowers on the monument that looked down on a plaque honoring his service in the Navy during World War II.

No doubt we each had our own memories, not always spoken.

For me, there was the day maybe a year before Daddy died that he told me he wanted to visit Marked Tree "one last time." We didn't get to make that trip. There was the indiscreet gravedigger who stood by a tad too closely during the memorial service. And there were the plans Daddy made long ago to help his family when he was gone.

Daddy's grave is in a sense part of its own community. Within a couple feet lies the grave of his mother who's likely keeping an eye on "Sonny Boy." A few yards away is my uncle James' grave. We placed flowers for them, too, as we did on my maternal grandparents' graves in an older part of the cemetery.

Daddy knew many of the people buried nearby, for he was active in church and city affairs.

He coached some of his cemetery neighbors in Little League baseball. He cut and colored others' hair, shaved their beards, pierced their ears. He taught Sunday school lessons and preached sermons to more than a few. He tried his hand at local politics.

And even though he couldn't come with us, he would have wanted us to continue our journey.

So we got back in the car and crossed the St. Francis River bridge into downtown Marked Tree, turned right and were on Frisco Street, the main street.

Once home to the city's only bank and numerous retail stores, the street was so busy on Saturday nights that locals entertained themselves by parking, sitting in their cars, and watching people walk by.

Schoenberger's, a clothing store, was among the town's most popular businesses before Walmart changed America's business landscape. That's where my grandfather bought a fedora with his name engraved inside. It was also where my childhood friend Kathy and I escaped injury when we crashed through a window while running.

Nearby stood Holland's dime store where I told my parents they could buy me a bubble blower in exchange for me having to give up my black cocker spaniel. Both stores are gone now, as are the three pharmacies that once lined the street across from the railroad tracks.

When I think of the old Nyal Drug Store, I think of the old "Happy Days" TV series, because the small store had a soda fountain and sold toasted sandwiches and milkshakes in its heyday. The building is empty now, but you can still see the store's name.

Marked Tree, between the St. Francis and Little Rivers, took its name from an oak tree that, according to one legend, Native Americans marked with a huge letter M to indicate a river route. The tree fell into the Little River during a flood in 1890. Another legend, though, says a band of outlaws marked the tree.

Either way, in 1971, a local man said he had found the namesake tree. The city arranged to have it put on display near the railroad tracks on Frisco Street and covered it with a large sheet (or maybe two or three). The governor at the time, Dale Bumpers, came to town to celebrate the tree's unveiling.

The tree is tree is gone now, too, having been vandalized by either rowdy young people or pesky termites.

Driving under the railroad trestle to the older part of town, we welcomed one impressive change. The trestle now features murals showing a Native American paddling a canoe, a cotton field, a crop-duster flying overhead and the area's historic siphons, a flood control facility on the St. Francis River that began operation in 1939.

We drove to Union Street, where we lived in two adjacent green houses. The larger one is gone now; the other is there, now painted white.

Further up the street is the white frame house where my maternal grandparents lived. A huge pecan tree still stands in the backyard.

The small metal fence and gated sidewalk leading to the house's front porch remain, but the porch appears run down, as does the house. There are still a few shrubs in the front yard, but none of the color that marked my grandmother's garden; no red or white roses. No petunias. Just the green grass and leaves.

In one of my favorite photographs my grandmother, wearing a pretty bonnet, and my grandfather are sitting beside each other on the front steps leading to their porch. The colors and the serenity of the garden are what make the photo beautiful. I'm grateful that they can't see this house, this yard now.

We next drive down Broadway Street. The rock building where we attended church when I was a child is boarded up. My uncle Slim's small grocery next door is still standing, but I'm not sure what it is these days. It looks boarded up but also appears to be in use.

Driving a couple miles northeast, we pass what used to be the town's country club. My sister was a lifeguard at the club's large in-ground pool when she was a teenager. Daddy played golf there. My wedding rehearsal dinner was there.

Now the country club is gone. The main building is someone's house. The residents have an above-ground pool.

We turn back and drive by the new high school across town. It looks really nice, and we have no doubt the town needed the new building. We then recognize an old section of the original building bearing the school's name, and smile with gratitude that someone has chosen to honor the past.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.


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