When I was little I had no idea that Memorial Day had anything to do with the military. Memorial Day was Decoration Day for us in Appalachia. We cleaned and decorated the grave sites of loved ones. My Mom and Aunt Thelma started working on crepe paper flowers every year after Easter, putting together baskets and sprays of tulips and roses and chrysanthemums. I loved those stacks of vivid crepe paper colors — red, yellow, orange, pink, and white. I’ve always liked the color blue, but the women didn’t make blue flowers. “When do you ever see a blue flower?” My Aunt Thelma asked.
My sister bought me a fancy cake for my birthday when I was in sixth grade. It was covered in snow-white icing, thick and sickly sweet, and circled with blue roses! It didn’t matter to me there there was no such thing as blue roses. I was always a lover of “no such things.” I daydreamed a lot. I imagined blue flowers.
On the Saturday night before Memorial Day (we always made Sunday the official holiday), my mom and Aunt Thelma and other women relatives who happened to have come home for the occasion, would wax the flowers. They melted paraffin in a big metal pot and dipped each fake bloom quickly into the hot wax to coat all the petals. By the next morning the flowers were dry and stiff and ready to be arranged. They stood up nicely against the wind and rain, but faded in the sunlight after a few months, and we’d go back to the cemetery to bring home the empty baskets to use again the next year. Looking back now, it’s rather amazing to me that our flower baskets were always right where we put them or emptied neatly and tossed across the stone fence in a pile to be sorted by each family who came to retrieve their own.
That’s not the case today. People decorate with real or store-bought flowers and cross fingers that the baskets will stay in place at least through Memorial Day before “walking off.” Times change. People do, too, I suppose.
I never liked to think, read about, or watch anything on TV about death. But it was all people talked about the week of Memorial Day. At the cemetery they told stories while they worked, remembered crazy incidents, laughed and cried and worried. It was all part of the tradition, a way to remember and revere their loved ones. I was usually given an armful of individual flowers to place on the graves. Each one had a crepe paper bloom at the end of a wire stem that had been covered in green. I cringed when I stuck those stems into the earth, especially when there had been erosion causing a grave to sink and they had piled clay dirt on top, mounding it to hold. It made it look more like a person and I felt odd and uncertain sticking those flowers down into that mound of clay. Some mornings the cemetery sat in a thick fog and, while the women worked, the men stood off under the trees talking, the lighted ends of their cigarettes moving here and there like tiny orange beacons of light. It’s funny the things you recall, the little images you can’t delete.
My dad talked about the “tomb of the unknown soldier” and I believed then that there had been only one soldier in all the wars who had not been identified. We had a picture of my Uncle Chester’s army unit on the wall and early on my dad pointed out his younger brother to us and told stories about the men he knew who had fought in WWII. Uncle Jay had been in the Battle of the Bulge, but he would never talk about it. He did mention on occasion the white cliffs of Dover and, from his expression, I came to associate those cliffs with some good, but mysterious, feeling.
Years later, I took my mom and dad to see the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery; now, after many visits, this ceremony still brings tears. The white cliffs of Dover? I saw those, too, years ago when the hovercrafts were still transporting folks across the English Channel from France. I thought about Uncle Jay and the memories he must have always carried with him. For me the white cliffs were a welcome sight in a much-less-complicated way — after traveling part of the summer in countries where a multitude of languages were spoken, I felt at home in England, following the road of The Canterbury Tales, remembering high school English class in Kentucky…
In Mexico people make a similar, but far more extravagant, celebration for their Day of the Dead. There’s music and food and vendors selling little sugar skulls and costumes and all-night visits and vigils in the graveyards. It’s one of the most colorful pageants of the year in Mexico’s cities and tiny villages throughout the country. It’s a happier occasion, but also just as serious.
Such traditions everywhere are important; they make the dead live again. This Memorial Day I’ll be thinking of all the people I love and miss and try to recall the happy times. That’s what matters most…finding a way to keep the good stuff!