I have to admit that I’ve never fully grasped Memorial Day. If anything, the day always makes me feel a little guilty whenever my mom talks about buying flowers for my dad’s and grandmother’s graves; something that never occurs to me to do.
I’m not sure why that is, because when I was a kid, it was always a big deal to the family, my grandmother in particular, to cut bouquets of lilacs and peonies and haul them up to the cemetery on the hill. I liked tagging along, curious to wander among the tombstones and grave markers, pondering the people memorialized there. Grandma answered questions without tire. These cement and marble squares were the memories of her friends and cousins and brothers and nieces and nephews and parents … and her husband.
Some stories were tragic … babies who died at birth, a teenager drowned at the lake, farm machinery accidents, car accidents, cancer, a son who didn’t come back from war. Other stories were of long lived lives … people who farmed and worked and raised children and ran businesses. Even more stories revealed the history of the area and state … one of the surviving members of the Whitman Massacre, the victim of a local skirmish with native dwellers, the town fathers.
Relatives wandered into town each Memorial Day Weekend. Because my grandmother, the youngest of six children, still lived in her childhood home, she became one of the reasons for a drive so far into the reaches of Whitman County. “We must stop and visit Aunt Hannah while we’re out there,” was the sentiment. She had become somewhat of a hermit as she grew older, so thrived on these visits, bashfully pleased to be the center of attention.
As I grew and left home, the Memorial Day traditions faded. Oh, I often post a comment of thanks on Facebook or have attended a military ceremony or two, but it’s never meant to me what it did to my grandmother and now to my mom. Truthfully, I struggle with guilt when Mom mentions the flowers that she buys each year for family graves. It’s just not part of my routine.
This year, however, I was back home for the early part of the weekend, visiting. We made a trip up to the Mountain View Cemetery in Farmington and stood under a tired, old pine, peering at those same graves that my grandma carefully tended. Now she is among them … my dad too.
I wonder if I’ve put off attaching myself to any Memorial Day traditions because I don’t want to face the awkwardness of whether or not I am going to feel any emotion. I think there was a deep seated fear that if I’m not emotional then I don’t fully appreciate the lives that went before me. I know some people who hate the day because of a different emotion – anger that unfinished business will now always be just that … unfinished.
Yesterday’s visit eased all worries. I wasn’t particularly emotional, but what struck me instead, was the beauty of remembering. Not having been to the cemetery on Memorial Day for many years, I was amazed at how many people were there. Six or seven cars bottle-necked the scrawny little roads. (It’s unusual to see that many cars on the main street of the tiny, little town, much less at the cemetery.)
My dad’s grave was one of the first on a newer section of the 100 plus year-old cemetery. Over the years, a handful of markers have joined his, scattered throughout the treeless strip of new grass. His grave, however, still remains somewhat isolated in the furthest corner, facing both Bennet’s mountain and the Idaho state line marker. It’s kind of appropriate, as Dad lived life a little bit quieter than most, yet always ready to give and help, he was never entirely unnoticed.
As I observed from that far corner, two things in particular struck me from yesterday’s visit. One – I loved how people wandered over to greet one another. Some were old friends. Some were out of towners, who once they mentioned a connection to a certain gravestone, were welcomed with a hard handshake or even a hug. People stood long, reminiscing, re-connecting.
The more poignant moment was noticing the graveyard fill with color as marble pillars reflected the purples, pinks, reds, yellows, and whites of flowers left at their sides; the colors a celebration of life and loved ones and of memories. Even more than a celebration, the red, white, and blue of the little flags inserted next to each American veteran added a proud, grateful demeanor.
Dad’s simple grave in the corner has one such flag. He would have been happy with just that. He was never one for a lot of fussing. However, as I drove away and caught the sight of the lop-sided bouquet of lilacs (appropriately stuffed into an old, red Folger’s coffee can – he probably consumed a least a hundred such cans in his life) and the orange Gerber daisy, that Mom and I left, I felt peaceful that Dad was among those visibly remembered this weekend.
We don’t have to physically go somewhere or buy flowers to remember our loved ones, especially our military members who sacrificed for us, but Memorial Day feels more right to me than it ever has. The efforts to clean up grave yards, to remember those who served, to sit quietly and give thanks wherever we are for those who made life possible for us today … to even hurt again for those taken all too soon … to realize that it’s never to late to forgive … these are all good things. It’s good to say thanks … to remember … to not take life for granted.