Memorial Day has always loomed large over my family. As each generation began to pass away, the responsibility for flowers on the graves fell to my mother. There were flowers to be purchased to meet the needs of changing cemetery regulations. But the difficult thing was that the number of graves increased.
I grew up across the street from the cemetery. The cemetery was where we played hide and seek, where we gathered for ghost stories, where we played tag, and where many of us stole a first kiss.The cemetery was part of our neighborhood playground. For my mother who lived to be 94 years old, the cemetery was a place where her life’s memories were stored in the names on the gravestones.
After my father died and all my aunts and uncles had passed away, after my father’s brothers and sisters were all gone, it fell to my mother to do the remembering and the story telling. For her, these actions were all wrapped up in the cemetery flowers.
I tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to be home prior to Memorial Day to help her find the right kind of flowers. After the rules changed when real plants and flowers were no longer allowed, the quest for quality plastic flowers became a day’s long process going from one place to another in search of “plastic flowers that looked real.”
The first step in the process was to make sure we knew the number of graves. That process needed to be undertaken with boots on the ground. We started by going to the simple stones that marked the graves of her two infant sisters who died a few months after birth. Then her two brothers who were buried locally. One in the military section of this small-town cemetery and one in another place. Then we journeyed to another part of the cemetery to her parent’s graves. As we walked, her eyes were constantly darting, left and right, to look at the graves we were passing. As we passed, she would remember a story about one of the people buried there. She would remember what the people were like, and she would smile, somewhat wistfully as she remembered everyone, and the role she or he played in her life. Then we would go to the graves of my father’s family who were buried there. First a brother and then the parents. And finally, to her husband’s grave and there the memories would flow, and she would tell story after story. Sometimes her eyes would fill with tears. Sometimes she would just stand and be silent, simply remembering.
The second step in the process was to decide on how the flowers would be placed on the grave. At first it was relatively easy. We would put the flowers in containers and just place them on or near the gravestone. But then the cemetery changed the rules and everything had to be off the ground in order to facilitate the groundskeepers mowing.
I remember one year when I hand crafted a device to keep the flowers in the air, using wooden stakes about three feet tall affixed with metal hooks,. Then these crude looking hooks had to be spray painted black, so they looked good. In subsequent years I just bought metal hooks to hang the flower containers to keep them off the ground.
The third step was the long process of finding the right flowers. And then finally we would make the walk to the cemetery each of us carrying flowers and containers. (I had already placed the hooks by all of the graves.) There was always a bit of ritual reverence to the process of placing the flowers. There were stories about each of the people who were buried beneath the hanging container of flowers.
Then there was the actual observance of Memorial Day. Memorial Day was a time when, in small-town America, people would gather at the cemetery, sometimes with a parade, to remember as a community. I would take my mother first to the cemetery across the street where she would gather with other folks from my hometown, to listen to speeches at the cluster of military graves, stand in silence as the bugler played taps. We would stand some with hats removed holding hat and hand over their hearts, some would stand with just their hands over their hearts holding individual memories.
One year, my mother wanted to go to all the Memorial Day observances at the three cemeteries in and around our hometown. At each one there was a color guard, a volley of gunfire and the solemn sound of taps. At each cemetery there was a gathering of folks perhaps a hundred or so, engaged in active remembering. Their memories were of both specific people but more than that they were remembering a time past. Sometimes their memories were long past and sometimes the memories were wounds of a more recent loss.
I remember my irritation at the fuss over cemetery flowers that always engaged my mother the weeks before Memorial Day. When I couldn’t be there, one of my sisters or a niece would do flower duty. But it was always something that was a hassle. But now, not having to do that ritual remembrance for over five years, I wish I could once more take my mother to the cemetery and through her eyes and her history remember as we placed the flowers and as she told the family stories.