When I was little and living with my grandparents, Memorial Day was a time to go and “decorate” the graves of family. In fact, my grandmother often called it “Decoration Day.” I didn’t know the focus was on those who had served and died. My grandfather was a World War I veteran and Memorial Day was a day to remember family, not the war he served or any wars. I am not sure why, my grandfather was a very patriotic man, but perhaps the horror of his experience was not something he wanted to revisit.
We took the pilgrimage to Garden Plain, Kansas to the Calvary Cemetery (the old records call it the Calvary Methodist Cemetery) which is directly south of the Saint Anthony Cemetery. The two cemeteries are actually on the same plot of land which when I was young was divided by a fence. The land was deeded for the cemeteries to Garden Plain by my great-grandfather Wiley Doyle. So each Memorial Day we would go to the Calvary Methodist Cemetery and brought plastic, yes, plastic flowers for my great grandparents, baby Stella (my grandmother’s sister who died at the age of 2) and couple of brothers. Later, another sister, Leola would be added to the line of family members.
We went, taking the same plastic flowers each year, and then we would wander around. My grandparents would talk about the “people” buried there. Shared stories, and my sister and I would always end up near a small tombstone with a lamb on the top. My grandmother would explain the little girl died very young. I didn’t get a picture this year…the rain has been non-stop, but unlike Stella, she had a tombstone. It looks something like this one.
When my stepfather was buried in that cemetery, each time I went, I visited. When my mother was buried there a year and a half ago, a stroll over to visit that little girl, whose name I can not read, was made. When my sister Tammy and I went to take flowers, we left a small bunch for her. I am not sure anyone visits anymore. We also left a pin wheel for baby sister Stella who has no gravestone, and probably will not be remembered once Tammy and I no longer visit.
We also visited my grandparents in their mausoleum in a Wichita cemetery. I am not overly fond of mausoleums, but that is what they wanted. So we went and remembered them as well. Finally in that same cemetery we went and found the graves of my great grandparents on my grandfather’s side, his sister and her husband. I am pretty sure no one had been there for a couple of decades. My great aunt had no children, my great grandfather had died in 1906 and my great grandmother in 1959. My great aunt Emma is the one who decorated my great grand parents graves and she has been gone for more than two decades.
So why go? I didn’t know them, I didn’t know Aunt Emma’s husband and I hadn’t gone before. Last year, I mentioned to my sister that Big Bob’s (my grandfather) parents were buried there and his sister. We decided to go this year. We didn’t know it would be rainy, but we found the graves, put some flowers on their graves and some other “relatives” we found and came home.
Who remembers? Who tells the tales? Who visits and decorates and gives thanks? Probably after my sister and I are gone, no one will remember or visit or tell the tales. No one will leave a few flowers for an unmarked grave for baby Stella or at a lamb tombstone. Why go?
In my scattered life I want to know that relationships matter. Even those relationships that are no longer “living” but continue in memory are important. Perhaps the rituals are not so important now that families live so far apart and there are many alternatives to “graves”. And yet, for me, the sacramental gift of visiting reminds that life is a gift. No one lives forever and each day offers promises and possibilities to be explored, enjoyed and pursued. The time will come when those opportunities will be long gone.
I am grateful for those whose lives have touched mine. I am grateful for ancestors never met, but remembered because of love and laughter. This Memorial Day weekend, I have remembered, cried a bit, laughed alot and given thanks.
For the remembering and for the gift of Life and I am grateful and graced to serve.