Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Days

It’s the bookend to Labor Day, and it’s one of the few holidays that don’t involve any specific or mandatory activities. For sure, it’s great to have a day off, and, since it’s the last Monday in May, it serves as the symbolic beginning of summer.

And we remember people who aren’t with us anymore.

Although it apparently started as a day to memorialize the fallen soldiers of both sides of the Civil War, starting in the early 1900s it became a day to decorate the graves of all relatives and loved ones. (Some people even remember this little fact.)

If your focus is purely on military participants, then I guess you must see Memorial Day as a sort of bookend to Veteran’s Day, the latter honoring living veterans, and the former honoring the deceased ones.

Personally, I’ve always viewed it as a day to decorate the graves of one’s relatives, pure and simple, sort of like the Bon festivals in Japan, where families reunite to clean the graves of their ancestors and celebrate their memories. Or, closer to home, the Mexican Día de los Muertos, which is kind of the same thing.

And although I value the sacrifices made by the members of the military as much as anyone else, I have to question how appropriate it is to honor their memories via air shows of fighter jets and parades of tanks and other weapons. Didn’t they give their lives so that we wouldn’t have to even see such dreadful vehicles and instruments of death? Isn’t war hell? I’m not sure it’s a good idea to make war look “cool.”

Anyway, Memorial Day in my family is a time for decorating the graves of relatives—women, men, and even children, whether or not they ever experienced a war directly or indirectly. (I know that the experiences of many soldiers are far beyond what some of us can imagine—but then I think we should recognize the hard work and sacrifices made at the home front, via Civil Defense activities, Red Cross service, rations, scrap-metal drives, deprivations, Victory Gardens, and worry.)

In fact, my parents were recently commenting on how, in both of their families, it was “Decoration Day,” and not particularly associated with the military. Mom described how her family would walk the ten blocks to Woodland Cemetery (they didn’t own a car). Her dad would wheel their push lawnmower, upon which sat a bushel basket holding hand trimmers and other gardening implements, while her mom would carry coffee cans with flowers in water, which would decorate the graves.

Yes, before there were cheap, multicolored fake flowers for sticking out on the graves, people would collect real, beautiful flowers out of their yards, drive or walk them to the cemeteries in galvanized buckets and tin cans of water, and arrange them at the graves, sticking them into position with wire and adding ribbons ad libitum.

One of the first things I wrote about when I started this blog was how moving it is to live in the home of your ancestors, and inherit flowers and trees that were planted by grandparents, great aunts, great-grandparents. For instance, we have a mock orange bush that grows near our back porch steps—I’m pretty sure the same exact shrub appears in a photo of my dad’s family, taken in the backyard around 1941.

And so it happens that Memorial Day, for me, becomes a sort of exercise in phenology, where the flowers for decorating graves on Memorial Day have become, over the years, the same customary types: peonies, mock orange, roses—because that’s what’s always blooming at the end of May. You say “peonies,” and I think “tombstones.”

Memorial Day wasn’t the only time for this activity, of course—there are many other good occasions for decorating graves, such as Christmas, when juniper boughs and red ribbons were de rigueur—but Memorial Day is the time of year to decorate with peonies and mock orange boughs.

And so here they are, these long-lived plants, blooming their little heads off in the backyard, telling me which holiday it is, reminding me of my ancestors, whether or not they, or their loved ones, had fought in the battles of history.

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