Usually, at this time of year, we’d be on our way to the Strawberry Music Festival, or thinking ahead to Father’s Day Festival. Of course, those aren’t happening, but life definitely feels like it’s making its slow return after an absence. One thing that is changing is the level of busy-ness. So, while I’ve been madly doing this and that, I have run out of time for a new piece. So, here’s a repeat from a Memorial Day of Yore. Enjoy your weekend, all, and see you soon with something new.
When I was a kid, we spent Memorial Day tending the graves of friends and relatives. We picked flowers from my aunt’s garden—gladioli, asters, zinnias, and fragrant little pink sweet peas—and gathered them up with ribbons into bouquets and put them in mason jars filled with water. We’d drive to two or three cemeteries and visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends–some that I remembered and missed, and some that I’d never met. We’d lay flowers on their graves and share stories about them. From these visits, I “knew” my uncle who died as a baby, and another who was killed as a teenager on a motorcycle. I learned more about a paternal grandmother I barely remembered, and a grandfather I never knew.
So-called mainstream US culture does not have a day set aside for remembering our ancestors. Many other cultures do, and some cultures within the US do—Mexicans and Mexican Americans observe Day of the Dead, Chinese culture has similar holidays on which to honor ancestors by visiting and sweeping their graves. Our family didn’t have these holidays, so we made one up, or rather, refurbished the one we were given.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that Memorial Day was a day to honor our soldiers who died while serving, not merely a day to remember everyone who’d gone before. Plenty of my family served in the military, but only two died during their service.
My grandmother’s brother died on the beaches of Normandy in WWII. I visited his grave when I lived in France and put a stone on it (flowers being scarce that gray December day). My nineteen-year-old uncle was killed May 11, 1969, on a very sad Mother’s Day, during a search and clear mission in Quang Nam Province, Viet Nam. His name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. I’ve been fortunate to visit, where I could touch his name, engraved in block granite alongside 58,317 others lost in that war.
Of course, I am now aware of the intent of Memorial Day, and do not want to take away any of the glory or memory deserved of our battle casualties. But, it is hard for me not to think about Memorial Day as a day for remembering everyone who paved a path for me.
- My maternal grandmother who played a mean banjolin, my grandfather who played fiddle, and the aunts and uncles who played music together at family gatherings. “Wabash Cannonball” was my favorite.
- The woman from our little town who was my babysitter, and her son, who was the first blind person I ever met.
- My grandfather, standing in the snow in front of an impressive tent made from canvas and two-by-fours (think about that when you’re swearing at your tent poles at Grass Valley).
- My aunt, who first drove me to visit cemeteries, and how we sometimes rode around town with a goat in the back seat of her ancient black Cadillac, the trunk tied down with baling wire.
- My young mother, who dyed her hair Lucille Ball red and drove her car fast, but then became a quilt-sewing, doting grandmother to my niece.
They’re all gone now, and worthy of memory.
As we move into the Memorial Day weekend, many of us are happy to have an extra day off from work, or look forward to barbecues, picnics, or a bluegrass jam or two. I hope that we also find some time to reflect and remember—the soldiers who died in battle, or maybe a beloved friend or relative recently gone.
Even though I am far away from the small town graveyards I visited as a kid, I will take a moment to admire a photo of my grandmother and me, laughing hysterically at a joke long forgotten, or the photo of my great-grandmother walking through a field, a shotgun over her shoulder, hunting for grouse.
Who do you remember? Visit their memories this weekend.