Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Days—Old School Style

One of my clearest childhood memories... and maybe it isn't actually clear, so much as repeated, step-by-step, year after year, is visiting the cemetery with my mom and grandparents on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend.

My mom and I would drive over to my grandparents house (all six blocks) and make sure they were on their way. I always wanted to ride with them instead of my mom because that is sort of the kind of brat I was... (Actually, I am clear—parents HAVE to discipline, grandparents get to be all fun, all the time), but this yearly pilgrimage found them with a back seat full of buckets. Buckets of peonies in water. Buckets of iris. Buckets of lilac some years. And a bucket with shears and trimmers and a sponge.

We drove in two cars because of the buckets.

The cemetery is barely out of town on the easy slope of a hill overlooking wheat fields and with the mountains in the distance. It is a pretty place to spend eternity... you know... other than the underground part. But underground was really the only option ever considered until about the 80s, so as far as burial spots go, this is a nice one. It is certainly a nice place for the loved ones to come spend some time with those who've passed.

But it's a NASTY turn in. It is a left turn off the highway and the view ahead TURNS, so it is WAY too short a view for the speed. I think since then, the slowdown coming into town starts a lot earlier, but I do remember some near misses turning into the cemetery It was a little too heart-pumping for our destination, but it wasn't like that was our fault.

The roads in the cemetery were one lane, but of course that weekend, we were rarely the only ones present. Still, there were also a lot of graves unattended.

See... humanoid form, or flat cement rectangle?
I wanted to explore the fancy statues, but our dead were from a more frugal era--fewer trees, because it was the new part, for one. But also the scale. Their children had survived the depression and buried them with humble, flat headstones. The trimmers were to outline the stones so the grass didn't overtake them. My grandma trimmed the neighbors, too—it wouldn't do to let those lying next to those we love be forgotten. Then she'd go fill one of the buckets with water and sponge off the dust accumulated over the year. My great grandparents were always the primary stop, though we also looked for family friends and would stop to clean up any we found. We left flowers by all of them.

I loved wandering the headstones—looking for those born a REALLY long time ago (I adore old stuff and the stuff in Idaho is only so old)... or those who lived really short lives. Those always made me sad—the tombstones of the children. Still, they were also the treasures—the saddest stories there (and possibly the reward for those who did math easily). Maybe my inner storyteller was already at it.

In 1977 we added my dad to the stops for the first time. That was hard. It wasn't like I ever forgot he was gone, but it was the first time we were visiting 'my grave'--one for somebody I'd really known and loved. I mean one of my great grandmother's was there and I knew her, but she died when I was about 5 and lived in a nursing home my whole living memory, so that isn't the same.

This one! But we came at it from the other end. 50 years later.
But as sad as it was, it also was a time of family closeness. A ritual we did together. And it was always followed by a long weekend at the lake—usually the first warm one of the year. My grandparents had a lake cabin that had a big room upstairs with three double beds and two cots, and a big room downstairs with another foldout bed, so the whole fam-damily could fit if we forced it (and those were my FAVORITE weekends--when we all crammed in)--fishing with my grandpa, making forts with my cousin, canoeing in the lake (WAY too cold to swim in a snowmelt lake until AT LEAST the 4th of July), hiking to the train tracks where we'd place pennies to be flattened and dare each other (if no adults were present) farther and farther onto the tressle.

They were wonderful weekends, but I think all the more amazing for the bittersweet start.

I wish you all a wonderful long weekend with just the right amount of remembering.


Trisha said...

I've got a friend who has a hard time every Memorial Day, because her parents were murdered over that weekend years and years ago. So for her it's definitely more bitter than sweet.

This post was definitely bittersweet. Sounds like some very special family memories were made on those weekends.

Old Kitty said...

What a fraught journey to the cemetary!

I hope you have a peaceful and reflective Memorial weekend. I think cemetaries ought to be such places too. Take care

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It gave you a special memory and appreciation for that day, Hart. That is priceless.

Creepy Query Girl said...

although sad, that's a really wonderful memory and tradition. In France, its tradition to do exactly the same thing on November 1st every year and I've been with my mother in a law and husband to wash and restore gravestones and plant new flowers every year. It really is an experience.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Your father died in 1977? That is the same year my father died. I was only 11.

Jan Morrison said...

We don't have Memorial Day in Canada and somehow I always thought yours was like our Rememberance Day which is for the fallen of war. I have no memories like yours, not only for that reason, but because, being Air Force, we never lived near our extended family. All but my grandfather died before I was in school - well one grandma and one grandpa well before I was born. Sounds like a very good tradition. Do you keep it still?

Heather Savage said...

That's a really cool family ritual. So many rituals get lost as families spread.
I live on a lake up north too, seriously, do NOT go in there until at least July. I can't imagine a snowmelt lake. Holy frostbite!
Hope you and yours are doing well this long weekend.

jaybird said...

Growing up, I lived right across the street from an old cemetary. People thought that was morbid, but we loved it. We played there. It wasn't scary, we thought it was the coolest place ever.

Now, that same cemetary is bittersweet. It still holds many memories, but now it also holds my sister and nephew. They are both buried there. Hard to imagine how we ever played there now.

Hart Johnson said...

Trisha- that would be VERY hard to have it all compounded!

Kitty-peaceful and reflective is definitely what I shoot for. And naked.

Alex-it is pretty special--you're right about that.

Katie-that is a nice activity--your kids will remember it like I do.

Diane--76, actually, but in summer, so 77 was the first Memorial Day... and you and I are exactly the same age. I was 10.

Jan-nationally, that is what the holiday is, but we always did the personal remembrance, too. And see, I had 5 great grandparents when I was born! But the Hart side was more spread cemetery-wise and it wasn't really and activity my dad was into. But not anymore... we don't know any dead here... it is all on the other side of the country.

Heather-I still love those lakes though! You're lucky to live on one!

Jaybird-a sister would be VERY hard! I find cemeteries peaceful, thoughtful places, but am not sure playing would have occurred to me. Maybe for hide and seek or capture the flag...

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Hart, I grew up doing that too, and we still do, though I skip some years. We go to the pioneer cemeteries on Saturday and to the in-town ones on Sunday. I have missed the Sunday ones for a long time now, and need to go see my grandparents graves this summer, I think.

I loved this post and your remembering of the time with your Mom and grandparents ... the buckets of flowers part was so cool.

Have a wonderful weekend,

Kathy M.

Teresa Cypher said...

Nice post, Hart. My preference (since it is well past the 80s and I have a choice) is to be cremated. Still, I sometimes find myself standing at my parents' graveside while on the way home from work. It is a good spot for something that defies a name other than meditation. You lost your dad when you were so young! I am sorry for that. I know what you mean, though, about "my grave". My father died in 1987, when he was 67 years old. The cemetery took on a whole new meaning after that.

Thanks for sharing with us...and you have a good memorial day weekend, too!

Johanna Garth said...

That was such a beautiful post Hart. Thank you so much for sharing those special memories, and I have to confess they made me a little tearful.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Beautiful post Hart. I love hearing how memorial day affects you and how you cope with loss. Flowers, memories, and lake time sound awesome to me.

Clarissa Draper said...

What a story. I'm not sure I've ever been in a grave yard. But, I'm not sure I would want to visit the grave of someone I loved.

Elana Johnson said...

This is such a great story. Thanks for sharing your family tradition. I think that's what Memorial Day is for me: a way to remember my family and our traditions.

Carol Kilgore said...

Such a close memory for you. Thanks for sharing with us. Memorial Day is bittersweet for most of us, I think. The start of summer, yet remembering all those who have gone on - especially those who gave their lives for our country.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Hart, I normally avoid cemeteries, but this story is so beautiful. It's making me change my mind. Thanks
- Maurice Mitchell
The Geek Twins | Film Sketchr
@thegeektwins | @mauricem1972

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I have the good fortune of living in the town where many of my ancestors lived and my mother-in-law is an ancestor genius. This is a great post.

Hart Johnson said...

DOH! I answered several of you at work and then my computer started freezing. MAN, I hate that!

Kathy-a whole weekend of it, eh? I can see how you don't do that every year. I'd probably alternate. Now that you mention it though, I had a few rare trips to Iowa as a kid to see family, and we always stopped at the cemetery.

Teresa-I am a cremation girl, too. I figure ashes scattered on the ocean make the whole darned ocean a memorial! My mom feels similarly, so that is nice. Hubby is morose and wants to be in an urn on the mantle *rolls eyes*

Johanna, thank you!!!

Michael-definitely a nice mix.

Clarissa-never? Seriously? Avoided, or just never happened?

Elana-Means more when it's personal, eh? My grandpa was in WWII, but most of my family just missed wars, generationally, so this makes it more personal.

Carol-Oh, I've never lived anywhere summer was here yet! Two to three weeks left of school in every case... (and sometimes snow in Michigan--thankfully, not recently)

Maurice-I think a lot of people do. I somehow lived through a lot of deaths when young and it gets less scary, at least when people are old and have had long lives and are ready. And I DO like the nearness to those spirits.

Tasha-so nice to have a family member do all that! Three strands of my family have traced back and I love knowing. Though I'm mostly Scandenavian and those strands have only been in the US 160 years or so, so it isn't as old as some people know.

Camala Bailey said...

Beautiful T, takes on real meaning, especially with what's going on with our auntie M.

LTM said...

Oh, TH. What a beautiful ritual and yet it's so, so sad. I'm all misty, but I love the thought of cleaning the headstones--including the neighbors. Remembering, taking the children. But the part about "your" grave. Uhh... :o|

But I know you're right that it was a time of family closeness. A solemn moment, but an important one. Have a wonderful week, and I'm so glad hubs is all better. ((hugs)) <3

Adina West said...

You really evoke a sense of place with this bit of family reminiscence, Hart. I've done plenty of cemetery visits in my time and you're right, there's a change when the list of graves visited includes one you've known well and loved.