A Grave for Great-Great Grandma: The Tragic Side-by-Side Burials of Willie and Eva Knight

Most people don’t even know one great-grandmother growing up, but I knew three of mine. My great-grandmothers died in 1973, 1997, 2003, and 2008. I was born in the 1980s, so the three great-grandmothers who were alive when I was born were more than just foggy memories from toddler-hood to me, they were women I knew. I was in my twenties when my mother’s mother’s mother passed away a few months shy of her ninetieth birthday.

The one great-grandmother I never knew at all was my maternal grandfather’s mother, Rosa May (Callaway) Lyons, the only one who died before I was born. I never even saw a picture of her (that I knew of) until I was about thirteen. I was staying with my grandparents for a summer visit, and Granddaddy–who worked as a printer and graphic designer for most of his life–had gotten himself a brand new scanner. He was touching up old photos when I walked into the den.

“Wow, she looks so much like mom. Who is that?”

“That’s my mother,” Granddaddy said in his dulcet Southern baritone, “so your mother looks like her.”

James Morgan Lyons and Rosa May (Callaway) Lyons, circa 1940s; digital image, January 2012, privately held.
James Morgan Lyons and Rosa May (Callaway) Lyons, circa 1940s; digital image, January 2012, privately held.

My mother remembers Rosa May, but only just, since mom was about eight years old when her Grandmama died. When I’ve asked my mom, or my uncles, or other family members about Rosa May–well, no one ever wants to speak ill of the dead, but the general consensus is that she had some…rough edges.

Maybe those edges started roughening up when Rosa May was ten years old. That’s when her mother died.

Rosa May’s mother, my great-great grandmother, Willie Elizabeth (Knight) Callaway died late in the evening on October 10, 1913 in Macon, Georgia.1 When news of Willie’s death reached her sister, Eva, in Mobile, Alabama the next day, Eva’s heart gave out and she died on October 11, 1913.2

My granddaddy was born in 1939, so he never knew his maternal grandmother Willie. (He never know his paternal grandmother either, but that’s a story for another day.) After we buried Granddaddy in 2012, I made a photo request for Willie’s headstone on Find A Grave. Dennis aka “Popeye,” a volunteer extraordinaire from Macon, Georgia, trekked out to Cedar Ridge Cemetery to snap a picture. Unfortunately, Willie’s grave wasn’t marked. Her husband, Rosa May’s father Lucian J. Callaway Sr. (L.J.), died in 1948.3 There was a blank in-ground slab to the left of L.J.’s marked grave, and Dennis supposed that Willie most likely rested beneath it.4

In late 2016, my Grandma gave me a big ol’ pile of paper and scraps that Granddaddy saved from his mama’s house when she died. Aside from the photographs, about half those bits of paper are related to Great-Grandaddy Lyons’s work on the railroad, or his time in the Navy during WWII. The other half is mostly related to the dirt track racing careers of Buddy and Foggy Callaway, Rosa May’s ne’er do-well rum-running big brothers (another story for another day). But amidst all the ephemera about the menfolks, there were two small newspaper clippings:

By the time they came down to me, these clippings were over one hundred years old. The clipping on the left is fractional, but the list of surviving siblings is intact. Of particular importance to today’s story is Mrs. J.W. Best, aka Jessie Knight, sister of Willie and Eva.

Like most genealogists, I often correspond with distant cousins from time to time. One of those distant cousin penpals is my second cousin, twice removed: Jessie (Knight) Best’s granddaughter, Glenda, who worked with Dennis aka “Popeye” to place markers on Willie and Eva’s graves in 2017, over a century after their funeral5,6:

And so, over one hundred years after their tragic, almost simultaneous deaths, Willie and Eva’s final resting places will speak their names for as long as the stones remain un-weathered and unbroken–all thanks to Glenda, the grand niece who never knew them, and to Dennis, who who watches over Cedar Ridge Cemetery.


1. Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/85962482/willie-elizabeth-callaway : accessed 1 March 2018), memorial page for Willie Elizabeth (Knight) Callaway (1875-1913), Memorial no. 85962482, created by Margaret C.; citing Cedar Ridge Cemetery, Macon, Bibb County, Georgia; accompanying photographs by Dennis “Popeye” Roland.
2. Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/89503258/eva-mae-liles : accessed 1 March 2018), memorial page for Eva May (Knight) Liles (1885-1913), Memorial no. 89503258, created by Eileen Babb McAdams, managed by Glenda Smith; citing Cedar Ridge Cemetery, Macon, Bibb County, Georgia; accompanying photographs by Dennis “Popeye” Roland.
3. Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/35252310/lucian-josiah-callaway : accessed 1 March 2018), memorial page for Lucian Josiah Callaway (1872-1948), Memorial no. 35252310, created by Dennis “Popeye” Roland, managed by Margaret C.; citing Cedar Ridge Cemetery, Macon, Bibb County, Georgia; accompanying photographs by Dennis “Popeye” Roland.
4. “Popeye” to Margaret C., 4 March 2012, Find a Grave member message, privately held.
5. Glenda Smith to Margaret C., 15 Feb 2018, Find a Grave member message, privately held.
6. “Popeye” to Margaret C., 28 Feb 2018, Find a Grave member message, privately held.

#52Ancestors Week 8: Heirloom

When everybody knows you’re the one who cares, you end up with a lot of heirlooms, papers, and ephemera. I’m like the Little Mermaid of my family, with who’s-its and what’s-its galore: from great-granny’s giant wooden spoon, knife, and fork set hanging on my kitchen wall (not to mention her biscuit pan and rolling pin in the cabinet), to a Shaker-style quilt which belonged to my step-great-great-grandmother, to my grandmother-in-law’s genealogical research files, to my great-grandmother’s high school yearbook, to my great-granddaddy’s shellback ceremony photos–you want thingamabobs? I got twenty! But who cares? No big deal. I want moooorrreee–

I’m sorry, where were we?

Right. Heirlooms. I’ve got a lot of ’em and I’d be hard pressed to name a favorite, but I think the most meaningful “saves” I’ve ever made are recordings of my late grandfathers’ voices.

My maternal grandfather (Granddaddy) died about six years ago. I’ve got a little brother over twenty years younger than me, and when he was tiny, Granddaddy and Grandma gave him one of those record-able Hallmark storybooks. Grandma and Granddaddy recorded Lightning McQueen and His Winning Team for my kid brother less than a year before Granddaddy died. Granddaddy’s maternal uncles were professional race car drivers in the twenties and thirties, and he was an amateur driver in his own right as a young man, so you best believe listening to my granddaddy read the page about Doc Hudson in his Southern baritone is something I can only do about once a year. (And let’s not even talk about how much I thought about my granddaddy and cried through Cars 3).

GranddaddyRacing
H.D. Lyons aka Granddaddy racing, circa 1960s; digital image January 2012, privately held

I bought a copy of the same record-able storybook for my own son, thinking I’d use Grandma and Granddaddy’s rendition of Lightning McQueen and His Winning team for his book too, but since I burst into tears every time I hear it, I think it might be better to get a new rendition from my in-laws. My husband made a recording of the audio just in case something happened to the book, and I’ve got that file backed up every which way.  I’ve got an actual tape of Grandaddy in my files too, one of my mother and some of her brothers with him back in the seventies, but the audio is heavily distorted. We haven’t been able to rescue it yet, and may never be able to. But at least we’ve got Granddaddy reading about the denizens of Radiator Springs.

My paternal grandfather (Papa) was only sixty when he died back in 1999. When his stepfather, the man I called Church Papa because he was a preacher–who functioned as a great-grandfather to me even though he was actually my great-grand-uncle; a story for another day–died in 2011, I helped my grandmother and great aunt clean out his house. In a stack of old cassettes, I found a tape that my Papa, Grandma, bio-father, and uncle recorded from Okinawa in 1979. Papa was stationed at Kadena Air Force Base at the time, and they’d recorded a solid hour of themselves just chit-chatting and talking about their lives to send back to Church Papa and Granny in North Carolina.

When we realized what it was, my grandmother and I were in a bit of a shock. We took the tape home to her house and played it. For the first time in over a decade, we heard Papa’s voice. It happened to be my birthday. We cried. A lot. Hearing my Papa’s voice again was probably the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten, bar none. I took the tape home with me to California, where my husband digitized the audio. I don’t listen to it often, but I like knowing that my son will one day be able to “meet” my Papa, who at one point jokes about going back to work in the cotton mill after his retirement from the Air Force–which he’d joined partly to get away from the cotton mill in the first place. Later on, he even talks my grandmother into singing a gospel song while he accompanies her on the guitar.

Speaking of, I’ve got a CD full of gospel songs Church Papa recorded with the other musicians at his church some time in the early 2000s, but I’ve lost track of the back-up. I guess it’s a good thing this prompt came along to remind me.

And now that I’m on the subject, we’ve also got a gospel record my husband’s grandfather cut in 1964. It’s one of several copies, but my husband wasn’t given his own until, well…the funeral. He babied the thing through airport security, and it hung on the wall in our son’s room until our little Destructo-Bot broke the frame (but thankfully not the record or his skin). If you’re into that sort of thing, enjoy: