June meetin' at Willis Chapel has generated lots of precious memories

J. H. Osborne • Jun 23, 2019 at 6:30 PM

I don’t take kindly to people making fun of Appalachians’ dialect or cultural behavior, especially with an exaggerated or just plain false stereotype.

But it’s OK when I’m laughing with them because they’ve gotten it right. In the 1988 film “Big Business,” there’s a scene where a New Yorker makes light of a — to her unknown — West Virginian’s pronunciation of “the meeting” as “the meetin.’ ” It struck a cord with me because all through my childhood I heard about a meetin’. The June meetin’. I honestly think any other time family members referenced a meeting, be it work-, school-, or church-related, the “g” was well enunciated. But the June meetin’ was never the June meeting.

For me “Big Business” included another authentic nod to the “country” side of my childhood: one of the West Virginians asks if another character would like some gum — and proceeds to rip in half a slat of Wrigley’s. If I had even a dollar for every time one aunt or the other did the same to me, and with Wrigley’s — usually Doublemint, but if I was lucky, good old Juicy Fruit — I’d be at least a hundredaire, probably several times over.

The June meetin’ is at Willis Chapel Primitive Baptist Church at Kyles Ford, in Hancock County, Tennessee. The church’s monthly meeting is the second Saturday and Sunday of each month. But the June meetin’s historical significance is that it is when all those saved in the year prior at the church were baptized across the road in the Clinch River. Also, there’s dinner on the grounds. Founded sometime near the turn of the 19th century, Willis Chapel is more than 200 years old, although the building has been replaced and re-situated over the years. The annual minutes of the Eastern District Association of Primitive Baptists often includes the Church Covenant as “copied from the Willis Chapel Church Book, dated 1807.” It is my mother’s childhood church and where she accepted Christ and was baptized one June meetin’ sometime in the 1940s.

Mom has returned for the June meetin’ at Willis Chapel as often as circumstances permitted over the years since she married Dad and moved to Kingsport in 1955. I took her last year. And again this year. I hope we both make it again next year. It has been good to make adult memories and get to know Willis cousins and others from the community.

My most vivid memory of the June meetin’ is of a Friday afternoon haircut. It was probably 1968. No pictures survive to document the result. Mom seems to have blocked out most of the details. Maybe her brain is protecting her from reliving the trauma. I don’t remember being traumatized. In fact, I got a new ball cap out of the deal and lots of sympathy gum from all my aunts — and it was whole slats!

Dad dropped my older brother, Keith, and me off at the neighborhood barber shop, next to The Village Market, on his way to work the 3-11 shift. He walked us in, paid, and said our mother would be along to collect us. I would have been 5 and a half years old. Keith would have just turned 9. We had to wait. In my memory, we both got into barber’s chairs at the same time. In any case, the barber asked Keith what we wanted. And he answered “G.I.s.” The man asked if he was sure. Keith said yes. Electric clippers purred up the nape of my neck to the crown of my head ... and just kept right on going until my short blonde bangs fell onto the cape the barber had draped around me. That continued until my head was sheared almost clear. It was the same for Keith. I remember being a little shocked when I got the first look at myself in the mirror. Keith seemed OK with it, so I was, too.

Mom, not so much. In fact she was beyond upset.  I rarely saw Mom upset when I was a child. And had probably never at that point seen her mad at anyone. It seemed like she wasn’t sure who to be mad at. We weren’t yet at the point of having long hair, but she expected us to have some hair. I usually had bangs. Keith had been known to sport a flattop (kept up with Butch Wax). But not the true “G.I.” look. Mom was mad at the barbers. They told her the older one (Keith) asked for it. Keith agreed. But confusion followed. Did he know what a “G.I.” was? (Dad later learned a customer just ahead of us had asked for a “G.I.”) And it was the first time Dad ever just dropped us off, even though we were regulars there. Well, up until that June Meetin’ Eve. My sister Pamela swears Mom cried. She went along when Mom took us to Sears to buy hats to wear to church the next day. Wait. Men and boys take their hats off in church. That’s how we ended up hanging outside most of that June meetin’. The next trip to Sears probably was to pick up Dad’s new home barber kit.

I guess it’s a bit ironic that all those years ago my clipped head caused such handwringing and now as an adult I’ve kept it closely clipped for years. Mom hasn’t asked me to wear a hat (other than to block the sun), and I haven’t hung around outside the church. I’d be lonely if I did. Sadly, these days the church isn’t overflowing like it was when I was a child. But it still is full of God’s love. By my count this year there were 19 of us gathered. Including Mom, me, my first cousins Lynn Wallen and Gary Wallen, at least nine were descendants of the Willis family whose old homestead is not far from the church. Mom’s maternal grandmother (Mary Willis Johnson Moore Baker) was a daughter of that family.

Mom’s cousin Millard Ray Hall helped lead us in song, along with T. Osborne, the Hurd sisters, and others. And her cousin Ralph Moore led the prayer. Pastor Mike Fullington preached an inspiring message. After much sharing in the church, we broke and moved outside to share our covered dishes, spread on the tables by Pastor Mike’s wife, Tina, and the other ladies. There we got to spend more time talking with everyone, including our cousins Doug Willis, Stevie Smith, and Ralph’s granddaughter Kera Hurd. Lynn got to catch up a bit with his maternal cousin Mobee Bledsoe and her husband, Howard. Mom talked to all the Hurd sisters: Lillian, Hazel and Velvie — along with their niece and great nephew Mandy and Jacob. They are paternal cousins to some of my maternal cousins — my aunt Bonnie married their uncle Lonnie. I talked a lot with Velvie (who brought a wonderful fresh raspberry cobbler that was to die for) and learned she was named after her mother’s favorite childhood paper doll. I told her that was way more interesting than being named John.

I apologize if I forgot to mention someone else who made this year’s June meetin’ such a memorable one for Mom and me.

It was perfect, I thought, as we sang “Precious Memories.” The lyrics really summed it all up. 

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]


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