When I was a kid, growing up, my parents loaded the trunk of our car with pots of geraniums and we went to plant one at every grave at every cemetery a close relative was buried at. It took most of the day, since a few were in small towns close by instead of in town,, and while my dad dug holes for my mom to pl;ace the geraniums in, my sister and I would run around the cemetery, chasing each other and having fun. When the trunk was empty and every grave was decorated, then we’d head downtown to Coney Island to eat hot dogs for supper. I can’t say it was one of my favorite days. It got pretty long after a while. But Mom and Dad were so happy with what they’d done, and we got to eat out (which we hardly ever got to do), so it was a meaningful day that ended well.
Once I grew up and got married, HH and I didn’t decorate graves for Memorial Day. But we bought an old bungalow on a street that our community uses for their Memorial Day parade. Cop cars and fire trucks line up and turn on their sirens to start off the celebration at nine a.m. You can’t sleep through the noise. (Though one time I tried. I had the flu and was miserable and cussed the parade more than it deserved). People line the sidewalks with lawn chairs, laughing and calling to each other. Two school marching bands are interspersed between floats, vintage cars, tractors, and horses. They make their way down the street, and people throw candy to the kids watching on the sidelines. Neighbors wave at each other and stop to talk once the parade is finished. And we end up with lots of small American flags to line the walk to our front porch.
For a long time, I didn’t value any of it. I enjoyed seeing people at the parade, but grumbled that I couldn’t sleep in. I wasn’t fond of visiting graves. After all, nobody’s there, just a plot of earth and someone’s remains in a box or urn. But since I’ve gotten older, I like cemeteries–quiet places that hold memories. They even make me think about people I’ve never met. I read dates, like 1873-1875 and think about a small child who had a short life. Sometimes, five or six people in a family die near the same time, and I imagine there was a disease. I read the words “Loving mother” or “Taken Too Soon” and conjure stories and images to go with them. And I see the military gravestones of soldiers and think about which war they died in. (In old cemeteries, there are many, many of them).
I knew that Memorial Day was important to my parents, but I never fully understood why. Now, I do. I still don’t decorate graves, but now I visit them. And they help me see myself as part of a long line of history and people. And that feels good. I understand why people are interested in genealogy these days. It’s nice to feel that you’re part of something. It’s nice to know your roots. They help you understand yourself a bit better.
However you celebrate (or don’t celebrate) Memorial Day, I hope you have a nice one. Family, picnics, grilling out, relaxing…whatever. Enjoy the last day of May. And have a great June!