With Memorial Day so near at hand, I'm thinking of my grandparents and the years we decorated graves together. They always called it Decoration Day, even after the name was changed and it became an official weekend.
Every notion I have about the holiday that has become the harbinger of summer, I learned from them. Grandma was a pro at decorating graves. She'd learned the art from her mother. Now Grandma Esther Clara's mother was not a frivolous woman in any way, shape, or form. Everything she did was for a valid reason and she wasn't too bashful to share those reasons when pressed. In her own words, here is what my grandma passed along to me about Decoration Day when I was a pup: (following quote taken from My Name is Esther Clara, Grandma's memoir)
"One of my responsibilities as a girl was gathering bouquets from Ma's flowers to decorate the family members, friends, and veterans who had passed on. Each bouquet had to contain roses, peonies, and iris in full flower, plus fat buds not yet ready to burst into bloom. Ma said that way her bouquets would look pretty longer at the gravesites. I cut the stems carefully with a sharp kitchen knife, just the way she taught me, so as not to bruise or strip them. Each bouquet was then arranged in cans or jars she saved for just that purpose.
Decorating graves was an all day job, traveling in our wagon to cemeteries for miles around the home place. Ma got up early and fried chicken, which we ate along the way with her big soft biscuits. We also took a jug of water in case anyone got thirsty. One year when they got roped into loading flowers in the wagon, my brothers teased Ma about 'decorating every grave in Cherokee County.' She gave them the straight mouth while thinking on a snappy comeback. What she finally said stuck with me.
'The graves I decorate may not be veterans, but they're the relatives of veterans. The War Between the States is not the only war this country ever fought. The fallen of this country go back several generations.'
That made a lot of sense to me. By honoring a veteran's relative, in a way we honor him too. Why shouldn't we honor the relatives of men buried in long-forgotten graves in places we might never see?
Maybe modern folks don't have the same sense of collective memory we had in past generations. By that I mean the spirits of their pasts may not influence them so strongly in the present. Maybe life gets in the way and visiting cemeteries is far down on their list of priorities. Or maybe the government changing Decoration Day to Memorial Day and designating it a three-day weekend changed the viewpoint from honoring our dead to having time off work. My belief is that the influence of people dead and gone made us what we are as a country, and as humans. Putting flowers on their graves in tribute one day a year is no sacrifice at all."
As always this time of year I think of Grandma and Grandpa and those hot days we spent delivering flowers to every cemetery in Marshall County Kansas. They offered their floral bouquets with reverence, laughed, cried, and reminisced about lost friends and loved ones. This time of year has always been and will always be one of remembering my friends and relatives resting beneath the sod of many states. Too many of the people I love are gone, but surely not forgotten.