“I can’t do a Zoom call then,” my friend, Janita, replied in a group text. “We are decorating graves.”
I felt a sudden wave of disappointment. I had completely forgotten Decoration Day.
Who would decorate Grandma and Grandpa’s grave? Aunt Jean and Uncle Gene’s? Guy and Hazel’s? Geneve and Alvin’s? Berthie and Sig’s? Robert’s? The list continued in my head.
This has been an unusual year for everyone. In my family, my 93-year-old mother is locked down in a nursing home in the Missouri Ozarks due to the coronavirus, and I am locked down in south Texas. With the exception of about three years when she, an Air Force wife, was unable to make it home for the holiday, my mother has always participated in the ritual of decorating ancestors’ graves on Decoration Day weekend. This tradition, like jelly recipes and delicate bone structure, has been passed down through generations of women in her family.
I wonder if she has forgotten, as well.
Decoration Day is purported to have begun during the Civil War when women placed flowers on the graves of deceased soldiers. At some point, the decorating extended to the graves of all deceased, and the name was changed to Memorial Day. Apparently, the residents of my small hometown did not receive the message of the name change.
In the late 60s and early 70s, my younger brother, Scott, and I accompanied our mother and our grandmother to the local cemeteries to decorate graves. The ritual began the prior week, when used, plastic flower arrangements attached to foam and wire contraptions, began to emerge from their hiding places in our barns and garages. Arrangements which had not fared well the previous year were revamped with additional plastic flowers or fluffed to conceal bare spots. Sometimes, tattered ribbons were replaced with new.
I do not know how the two women, my mother and grandmother, kept up with all the graves to be tended, in three different cemeteries. And, I do not believe they actually counted. They just carefully filled the trunk of my mother’s white Ford Galaxie 500, littered the back seat with the overflow, and began the process.
“I think the pink ones look best with this stone,” my mother would comment.
“She loved yellow,” Grandma would offer.
And, so, it went. There was nothing random about their floral assignments. Headstones were cleaned with damp rags. Large arrangements were carefully clamped to the top of headstones of immediate family, parents and grandparents, or those who had no one else to decorate their graves. For the deceased who had someone else to decorate their grave, my mother and grandmother simply planted a small plastic floral sprig in front of the stone, as a remembrance.
At the large Seymour Masonic Cemetery, on the edge of town, we decorated the graves of my grandfather, his brother and sister-in-law, my aunt’s parents, Hazel and Guy, and others. The well-tended cemetery smelled of freshly mown grass.
We usually decorated on Saturday and Sunday because there were so many graves to visit, and so much “visiting” to do along the way. The goal was to have the project completed by early Sunday so that everyone at the cemetery on Decoration Day could see that the people who rested beneath these headstones were still loved and had not been forgotten. For my mother and grandmother, there was no competition to outdo any other family with the display; they were not that kind of people. At a time when many people bought new florals each year, they just used what they had to honor their loved ones.
The Decoration Day weekend was, and still is, especially important in the town because it is the weekend of the Alumni Banquet, the longest continuously-running school reunion in the state, begun in 1901. Aunt Jean and Uncle Gene, my mother’s brother, always came from St. Louis for the banquet, the visiting and the grave decorating. The cemeteries were filled with people, flowers, hugs, American flags, cars, tears, laughter, memories . . .
and mothers telling their children not to run.
My brother, Scott, was not interested in family history, nor in rules, so he ran off chasing squirrels or imaginary monsters the moment he tumbled out of the car.
My friends whose parents did not decorate, gasped at the thought of going to a cemetery but I learned, from an early age, the peace and history that could be found there. My mother and grandmother were very patient in answering my questions about how the individual deceased were related to, or important to, our family.
I always followed the paramount rule which was: you must not – unless it is an absolute necessity – walk on top of a grave. Sometimes it took some strategy to plan the walking route. Most graves were laid out in predictable rows, so I could approximate where the body lay. However, some areas in the older section of the cemetery were not so easy. And, some graves in the older section were too easy, since a rectangular sunken spot manifested the fact that a wooden box had collapsed under the weight of the years.
I tried not to think about what lay below, but it did not help. I knew.
When I was quite young, a four-lane highway on the edge of town replaced the narrow, two-lane highway around which the town grew. During construction, a small, forgotten cemetery northeast of town had to be relocated. Curious, my father watched as crews, using a backhoe, located graves, then dug them up as best they could.
“Did you see bones?” I asked, excitedly, not sure I wanted an answer.
“Only white powder,” he answered.