When I was growing up the May 31 custom of honoring the deceased involved weeks of preparation. I can still see my mom and Granny Wren making crepe paper flowers at our kitchen table. Stacks of red rose petals, strips of yellow scalloped paper for the mums and a variety of small green leaves were laid out before them.
On such a day a kettle of chicken and dumplings might be bubbling on the stove, red potatoes softening in hot water, and the little hat on top of the pressure cooker dancing back and forth as the last of the winter stash of “shuck beans” cooked.
For me, spring days in Appalachia were a mix of anticipation, sorrow, and laughter. We spent weeks making flowers to adorn the cemeteries on Decoration Day, and while the women worked and shared their private joys and sorrows, I collected their stories. Mom hummed gospel tunes while she twisted petals into place and commiserated with Granny about departed kin.
On the night before Decoration Day we brought the flowers to the kitchen, where the grown-ups dipped them in a pot of hot wax. Once dry, they were arranged in baskets with holly, ivy, and other sprigs of evergreens. At the cemetery the women placed baskets on the graves while the men cut weeds and trimmed bushes. When we were done my mom and her three sisters always lined up behind the tombstones for a photo.
No one makes crepe paper flowers anymore. People buy flowers from a florist or skip the tradition altogether. But in the old days the annual ceremony took on a mystical air. I recall the anticipation and the beauty of it all — relatives coming home, good food and late nights, a feeling of contributing to something important and necessary, and how, with stories and songs, the dead, if only briefly, were brought back to life.
***This was an excerpt from an essay I wrote for Reminisce magazine, May/June 1999.
When I was writing TO COME AND GO LIKE MAGIC I realized that I couldn’t write about Eastern Kentucky in the 1970s without including a story about Decoration Day. The story grew and the young people who help to make the “pauper’s lot” bloom learn a great deal about family tradition and friendship and life in the process.
Have a safe holiday weekend!