It’s Memorial Day weekend in America. Big things are happening in your neighborhood. Or a neighborhood near you.
As is our tradition on any long weekend now, we have juggled the actual date for which the celebrating once happened to the nearest convenient date. Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July are the only dates still sacred in our calendar. Memorial Day was once celebrated on May 30, but that’s in the dim and distant past.
We love three-day weekends, mini-vacations as it were, and cram them full of activities. We’ve got the Indy 500, bike races, marathons, humongous department store sales, parades, festivals, concerts and rallies.
There will be speeches and flags and the sound of mournful bugles blowing “Taps,” ball games and picnics where the weather is warm enough, and traffic jams up and down the highways of America as people head “somewhere else” for the long weekend.
The provenance of Memorial Day is up for grabs, but it was officially declared a national holiday to honor veterans of both sides of the Civil War and changed after World War I to honor all who had fallen in any war.
The poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a doctor in the Canadian Army brought to us all the image of the red poppies which have become a symbol of Memorial Day. Here’s the first stanza of his poignant poem:
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below…”
When I was a child, the holiday was still celebrated on May 30 and it was still called Decoration Day. This was an important holiday in our big family. My grandparents had lived in the same town for many decades and we had a lot of graves to decorate.
My grandmother marshalled all hands to create the many bouquets of peonies, iris, and lilacs which we then carried in all the cars available to the cemetery in La Grande, Oregon, where most of the relatives were resting in what we hoped was peace, although from what I know about a few of them, it might have been otherwise. After we’d decorated all those graves, we took the rest of the flowers to our old pioneer family graveyard outside of town at Hilgard where my grandmother’s family had homesteaded.
On Decoration Day, we kids in the family learned about death and the proper respect for those who were in the ground. “Be careful where you walk. You don’t step on the graves.” And we heard stories about relatives long gone including the saddest memories of children lost through typhoid or influenza. The day was a family history lesson itself.
Things have changed now. My grandparents are buried in the big cemetery along with my father, a couple of my aunts, and other close and not so close relatives that I once knew. My grandparents’ house belongs to someone else, and our family no longer gathers in LaGrande for the ritual of filling jars and vases with water, mixing the bouquets, loading them in the car and decorating graves. We’ve scattered to many places now as so many families have.
But I’m thinking about my grandmother today, and the memories of those Decoration Days are as fresh as the sweet lilacs from the big bushes in her yard. Please indulge me as I include here a poem of my own about those memories. I like to think I got my spirit of determination from my grandmother.
In late spring,
on Decoration Days,
after we’d carried peonies and iris
to the cemetery near the high school,
we gathered in whatever family car
would hold the most
and headed for the lonely graves
Grandmother called the shots
from whichever seat she occupied,
a bucket of lilacs
on her lap.
She had the right. The hand-dug
graves that waited year to year
belonged to her, and all the memories in them.
“My Grandad Hawes’ old homestead,”
she’d remind again,
as if we could forget.
We’d find the narrow road that shot
straight up the muddy height.
The lucky devil at the wheel
would give ‘er the gun. Halfway up,
the car would lose its grip and
slowly slide back down
with Grandma resolutely watching
everything run backwards
through those lilacs on her lap.
Stopped at the bottom of this
always muddy track, she’d leave the car,
a struggle with the bucket, and announce
without a moment’s pause,