Monday, May 27, 2019

Memorial Day 2019

. . . And decorating the graves. How many people still do this, nationally? It seems that a requirement be that someone’s still living someplace near the cemeteries. Someone who didn’t move to another state. Also, someone who—if they did move out of state—didn’t stay away so long as to have the tradition of decorating the graves leave their consciousness. Basically, someone like me—this is becoming my job.

Pretty much all my relatives are buried in Jefferson City cemeteries, and there’s been an unbroken tradition of decorating graves since each was filled. Christmas, and Memorial Day.

In Buddy’s Stories, Dad shared his memories of the whole family piling into his Aunt Minnie’s Lincoln Zephyr to decorate the graves, with water buckets on the floor between their feet filled with peonies, weigela, mock orange, and whatever else was blooming in the backyard. (You all have his latest book, right?)

Each year as the peonies, roses, and mock orange starts to bloom in our yard, I think, “Well, it’s getting close to Memorial Day, isn’t it.” I don’t really need a calendar for it, and I don’t need to see “Memorial Day Sale!” yelling at me in newspaper ads. These are the exacting same peonies, roses, and mock orange plants that once supplied Grandma with flowers for graves.

Dad and Mom, and Uncle Richard and Aunt Carole, have done these acts of devotion and memorial since Grandma and Aunt Minnie were no longer able to do so. Aunt Minnie died in 1980, and between her and Grandma, she was the one with the car, so Dad and Richard had been driving Grandma to decorate graves since at least that time. Until 2000, when Grandma took her place in the earth beside her husband.

Dad’s and Uncle Richard’s continuing attention to these rituals has always impressed me with its tenderness, its attention to detail, its steadfastness. Its obstinate refusal to go full-on plastic. And its privacy: because unless it’s part of a public ceremony involving the graves of military veterans, the decoration of graves is always a private ritual.

And it is a ritual. Setting the date for when we’re meeting out at Riverview. Driving slowly to the well-known locations that anyone else would have to hunt for, parking, opening the trunk or back door of the vehicle to create a little work station for fiddling with the flowers, ribbons, stakes, wire, wire cutters, and whatever else.

Often, the different tasks wind up certain people there. At Christmas, Uncle Richard will drive in the wooden stakes, while I cut the lengths of wire, while Dad arranges the greenery and ribbons. Or maybe I’ll do the arranging while Dad cuts the wire. I’ve taken to bringing a whisk broom with me to clean grass clippings off the stonework. We usually pick up any trash we see, too, wherever we see it.

After making the rounds of Riverview (rounds are literal, since the cemetery drives make big loops around the sections)—decorating the graves of Mom’s Aunt Lyddie and her family, Dad’s Aunt Minnie and her family, and, often, Marie Korsemeyer, who was basically an aunt to Dad, and one of Dad’s dear friends, and one of my dear friends.

Then, we drive on to Hawthorne and decorate the graves of my maternal grandparents. Then, often, we go to the old Lutheran cemetery overlooking Highway 54, and to Woodland to decorate Mom’s great-grandparents and grandparents.

For Memorial Day, Mom and Dad picked out a variety of imitation flowers (as you can see from my photos)—bright colors, natural-looking varieties that we connect with the ones whose graves we decorate. (Grandma Schroeder was in love with sunflowers, for example.)

At Christmas, we use cedar boughs that my cousin Phil gleans from his property northeast of Centertown; Uncle Richard and Aunt Carole bring them, while Dad brings the big, flocked, bright red ribbons. (And I keep forgetting to bring gloves!)

After the decorating is done at a site, or while one of us is putting the finishing touches on an arrangement, we often stand around and chat a little bit about the ones lying below us. It’s not maudlin talk. With Aunt Minnie, we often say, “Oh, she would like this arrangement—it’s so pretty!”

And Dad points to the stones nearby, naming the names, and talks about how a lot of Aunt Minnie’s best friends were buried in the same area.

For me, and I suppose overall for my family, Memorial Day is primarily a day for remembering those who now lie under the earth. It’s always kind of confused me that the rest of our nation seems to see it as a day for remembering only deceased military people—for waving flags and such. Because didn’t all our forbears struggle, deal with privation, make sacrifices, live their lives so that we may live? I don’t want to diminish the sacrifice made by people fighting wars, but by the same token, let’s not diminish the losses suffered—and the lives lived—by the ones who didn’t march off to war.