Memorial Day

My former editor doesn’t go to cemeteries. Says she never will, even when she dies. She plans to donate her body to research.
While that’s a noble thing to do, I couldn’t resist telling her about a murder case I once covered. A drunken man and woman got into an argument at a Muskogee flophouse, and he beat her to death. After officials failed to find any of her relatives, they tried to donate her body to science. Science didn’t want it. I thought that was the ultimate rejection.
I, on the other hand, enjoy visiting cemeteries. I wonder about the stories these people had to tell, and there must have been many intriguing ones going along with all those lives.
Memorial Day has always been a big ritual in our family. Each year, my mother collected tall juice cans and wrapped them in tinfoil. She placed bouquets of roses, peonies, or whatever other fresh flowers she could collect and prepared them to place on relatives’ graves. Then the cemetery pilgrimage began. We always encountered friends and relatives at the cemeteries. At Billings, Mo., we usually arrived about the time a religious service began on Sunday. My mother always got to see several old boyfriends there.
My mother considered it almost a sacrilege to use artificial flowers. But as the years went by and the number of family graves increased, she finally relented. We still made the pilgrimage. The number of contemporaries and old boyfriends decreased as she got older. The last few years of her life, I made the journey alone. She doubted I would continue to decorate the graves after her death.
She was wrong. I enjoy the ritual. A Memorial Day trip to Missouri was Tim’s first introduction to the area after we got together, and his first introduction to many members of my family.
Together, we visit six cemeteries in two states, telling each other stories about our families as we do. In Oklahoma, we go to Barber, a rural cemetery where many Cherokees lie. An angel over the gate presides over the calm, wooded hillside. Tim talks about his parents, his grandparents, some of the aunts and uncles he remembers fondly. We place arrangements with flags on the graves of his brother Jesse, who died in Vietnam, and Larry, also a veteran, who was murdered. The case remains unsolved nearly 15 years later.
Back in Missouri, we visit Green Lawn and White Chapel cemeteries in Springfield. My Aunt Lena and her family are in Green Lawn. I tell Tim about Uncle Frank, a kind and gentle man who loved fishing and was often somewhat forgetful. One time at the lake we noticed him dog paddling along — still wearing his glasses and his watch. Next to them are their son Ed, a World War II and Korea veteran and later a test pilot. I first remember meeting Ed when he was home after his helicopter crashed during the Korean War. We shared a bowl of purple ice cream. His sister, Betty Ann, and her husband Don, are next to Ed. I always enjoyed visiting their chicken farm, where they produced eggs. A couple of years ago I was shocked to see that their son, Mike, had died. He was younger than me and I’d lost track of him. I don’t know if he had any children, but someone always decorates his grave.
I’ve never liked White Chapel. It’s at the end of the main runway of the Springfield Airport, and jet takeoffs and landings always punctuated family funerals. We placed flags on the graves of my father, who served in Europe during World War II, and my cousin Joe, who was present during the Vietnam Gulf of Tonkin. My parents and my mother’s twin sister and her husband have identical grave markers. I’m also the only one to put flowers on Aunt Lela and Uncle Rudy’s grave. I have no idea if their son is still alive. Uncle Rudy used to sell Electrolux vacuums. He would knock on a door, and when the housewife invited him in he would dump a bag of dirt on her floor so he could demonstrate how well his vacuum worked.
Then come the country cemeteries, the ones I enjoy most. Halltown’s Rose Prairie is where we find my Grandma Smith, Aunt Lucy, Uncle Bill and Aunt Virginia, and others. As a child I was amazed by the number of babies who were buried without names, victims of early childhood illness. One family apparently stopped naming their children until they decided whether they were going to survive. Several stones in their plot say only “Baby,” while one, who made it to age two, will be known for eternity only as “Fatty.” Always felt sorry for him. I also wondered what caused one man to be buried, away from the rest of his family, alone by the outhouse back of the chapel.
Campground Cemetery at Chesapeake is by far my favorite cemetery, with its towering oaks and cedars. Grandpa Smith is buried there, along with three of my father’s siblings I never knew. Mary died as a teenager, and my grandparents’ first children, twins, were stillborn. The stone states only “infant children of William and Mamie Smith.” Several years ago we realized no living person knows whether they were boys, girls, or one of each. My Uncle Claude and Aunt Ruth, my favorite aunt and uncle, also are there. Uncle Claude, who was wounded in Italy while serving with General Patton in World War II, also received a flag. A new concrete block outhouse has replaced the old wooden one where my cousin Brian once locked in Uncle Wilson.
St. Peter’s Cemetery at Billings reflects the German heritage of its earliest inhabitants, mostly Swiss or German immigrants. The older stones are engraved in German, including a strange iron cross marking the grave of Viktor Pfundt, the young son of the minister at the church my mother attended as a child. Besides my grandparents, we pause to remember two other aunts I never met, Johanna and Lydia. Lydia was only a year old when she died of diphtheria, while Johanna was four or five when my grandparents were burning brush, she fell into the fire and died from her burns. The most recent grave we decorate there belongs to my cousin Rose Mary, my oldest relative when she died last year at age 90. I didn’t know until she died that she had been a Rosie the Riveter. When she was 18 she went to California and got a job making fuel tanks for B-17s. She was a member of the national Rosie the Riveter Association.
My family has many stories to tell. No doubt yours does too. I wish now that I had asked family elders for more information when they were still around to provide it. I especially wish I had known about Rose Mary’s wartime contributions and been able to talk to her about it.
As a journalist, it wasn’t uncommon for me to read an obituary and think “I really wish I had met that person while alive. He or she would have made a great story.” It’s even more tragic that I wasn’t able to pass along all the family stories because I just didn’t ask.
Still, my Memorial Day ritual keeps me sharing the stories I do know. I don’t know that anyone will ever share mine. That’s one reason I’ve written my memoir, Deadlines. By next Memorial Day, it will be in print to share my experiences.

One thought on “Memorial Day

  1. Thanks for your comments and memories about Memorial Day. It’s pleasant to stroll through cemeteries, placing out (plastic) flowers and recalling our loved ones.

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