Memorial Day. I was blessed to grow up in the same city that held grave markers for many of our ancestors. My mom, my aunt, and my grandma knew where everyone was buried in this gigantic cemetery, though I was unable to decipher the rather ancient engravings to know much about the deceased. Hours before arriving, my sister and I were annually assigned the task of snipping yellow roses from our neighbor’s bush; the side that grew over our driveway. Our neighbor didn’t mind, as long as it was the driveway side. At least, that’s what my mom told me. I never really asked the neighbor. I must add that, to my recollection, Mama always used the word “snip,” not cut. One must “snip” the stems. For the life of me I never knew if I was “snipping” or “cutting…” It always seemed the same to me.
So we’d bring the yellow roses and the mason jars, and set them on our laps while Dad drove our family to the cemetery. (Mom was wonderful at orchestrating family events. Dad was wonderful at obeying them.) Nine times out of ten, we’d meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents right there at the graveyard, knowing a delicious lunch at Grandma’s house was soon to follow. But when grownups get together, they begin talking, you know, and kids run out of things to do. So Julie and I would pay our respects the best we could, considering we had no idea who anyone was. And gratefully so. Then we’d wander off, reading random headstones to one another and doing the math. We’d take note of the markers with little American flags stuck into the ground, and try to figure out which war they fought in. Of course we were drawn to the stand-up headstones, and admired the beautiful floral arrangements placed in various locations. We were always careful to never step on a headstone, for that would be the ultimate in disrespect. We were also careful to never step on any lawn that looked soft or caved in because ….ewwww.
Eventually we got to noticing the graves that didn’t have flowers or flags. We wondered about them, and allowed ourselves to feel sad for a moment. Sometimes the engravings included pictures, like lambs, which of course deepened our sorrow for the little ones who were loved and buried and now forgotten. At least, that’s what our hearts told us had happened. To preserve ourselves from feeling such powerless remorse, we began planning ahead. We’d save empty Gerber baby food jars throughout the year, and when Memorial Day came around we’d gather them up. Now, when we snipped the yellow roses for our ancestors’ graves, we’d include handfuls of tiny white flowers that grew in abundance around our yard. Once at the cemetery, we’d fill the jars with water and the “Summer Snow,” and search for the gravestones that had lambs with no flowers. Doing something about their loneliness brought great comfort to us children.
Then there was the year our grandfather passed away. He loved yellow roses. So that worked out great. Except now we knew what true mourning really was. We knew someone in that cemetery… and it was dreadful without him. It always made us extra grateful to have our grandmother still with us. Except she shared the headstone with Grandpa, so her name was eerily etched in stone next to his. Awaiting death, like an unfinished song. Grandpa’s name, Date of Birth, Date of Death, Grandma’s name, Date of Birth.
That was years ago. Grandma’s gone now, at age 94. Our other beloved grandma died at 103. Compared to those ages, Dad was a spring chicken when he died two months ago at 83. His headstone isn’t finished yet. But I know he’ll have plenty of flowers on his grave. And a flag, too. Did he ever know what Julie and I were up to back in those days, scampering around that old cemetery? He’d have probably laughed and shook his head and felt proud. I like knowing we searched for empty headstones so we could cheer up the dead. Well…it cheered us up, anyway.
Memorial Day memories. That’s what Memorial Day means, right? To remember.