Monday, May 25, 2009

A Memorial Weekend

Back when I was a child -yes, many, many years ago - this holiday was not called Memorial Day. Rather, it was known as Decoration Day.

It was a weekend that generally saw this old house pretty much filled to over flowing as my Mom's older sister and her husband plus Mom's oldest brother and his family, with all five of his children and his wife too, of course- would always come here. Sometimes, another of Mom's other three siblings would show up too for the long weekend, but always, those mentioned above would be home for the holiday.

My grandfather's brother -who lived six doors down the street from us -would also have a full house on that weekend as well. And usually, two of my Grandfather's sisters and one of his brothers would be here too.

Although I knew early on that Decoration Day was a day to pay homage to those who had served and paid the ultimate price for the freedom we enjoy here, it was a day which involved a lot of planning on the part of my Mom and Grandma as they would make several trips to the cemeteries to prepare the graves for the subsequent flowers they would plant there.

In my Mom's family here there were not a lot of her cousins who served in the military. None of Mom's brothers were ever in the armed forces during WW2 as they apparently weren't considered due to age, or employment status I suppose.

But, one of my Mom's cousins did serve in the Army and he lost his life someplace in France about two or three weeks before the war in Europe finally ended.

I was six months old when Anton was killed in action, so obviously, I never knew him but I learned from a very early age that the flag that was placed by his grave by the local VFW group indicated that he had, indeed, done his part.

Back then, Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30th -whatever day of the week that happened to fall -not on a specific Monday in late May as it is done today.

But, it was something that back then, almost every home in this small village had company, relatives who returned not just to pay homage to the veterans of various wars but to remember ALL family members then departed.

We always had to make a trip to a particular greenhouse Mom liked over in Clearfield to get enough flowers to be sure that each and every grave of a family member had at least one geranium planted by each headstone -some, like the graves of my great-grandparents, or my Dad's -warranted more than one flower too.

And on Decoration Day, the whole family was up early to get ready to be at the cemetery too for the service held in the lot adjacent to the graveyard for more tributes, music, a sermon about the valor of the veterans and to the memories of those family members loved and none forgotten.

I remember always being with my one uncle in particular -my older aunt's husband -as he would walk through the cemetery, showing me graves of his parents, his grandmother, other relatives of his and also graves of friends of his as well. We did that prior to the service and after the service, the visiting of the various graves continued.

Back then, Decoration Day seemed to mean more to folks than I think it does today.

I don't think that people today don't remember family and friends who served in the military nor do I think that they don't think about and remember other family and friends who have passed but very few think of attending the services -still held every year at the cemetery here -the way people did then.

Today, it seems there is just an observation of the holiday as a means of ushering in the summer and vacations.

I'm just as guilty in that respect as many others are too. I haven't attended the cemetery service in probably well over 30 years now. But I have tried to at least make sure I get to the cemetery -sometimes not until the day before the observation of this event -to plant flowers on the graves of my grandparents and my parents now too.

And this year was no different. I had flowers to put on those graves as well as on some others from my family who I wanted to remember in that manner. My Mom's older sister and her husband -Aunt Ethel and Uncle Albin, as well as two of my Dad's sisters.

But the past couple of years when it comes time to go plant those flowers, I usually have to have one of my kids -either Mandy or my son -go with me to help with the plantings.

This is because to plant flowers, one has to get down on the ground, dig up the area around the headstone, get the soil turned up and over to be able to place the flowers in there. I can do most of that but I do need someone stronger than I to do the initial digging.

And once the planting is completed, I also have to have one of my kids there to give me a hand and help me get back up on my feet again! Once I get down on my hands and knees these days, unless there is some really solid thing very close by, I can't pick my fat self back up again!

Sad but true -the realities of aging, you know.

This year was my son's turn to go with me. I had two box lids filled with flowers -geraniums, petunias, marigolds, impatiens, and some begonias too. When we were ready to leave the house, Maya wanted to know where Gram and Uncle Clate were going and insisted on going with us. I told her yes, she could go too but she would have to behave like a good little girl -no wandering off, no getting into things and all the admonitions of that type one would tell a rambunctious five-year-0ld.

Our first stop was at the cemetery atop Grassflat Hill which is where my Mom's parents and Aunt Ethel and Uncle Butch are buried. I also had a couple of extra flowers to be placed on the grave adjacent to my grandparents. That being the graves of a couple who were very close friends of Grandma and Grandpa and who never had any children, nor do they have any surviving family members to remember them on Decoration Day either.

I took a couple of pictures at our cemetery but didn't get any at the cemetery in Morrisdale where my parents, grandparents and others of my Dad's family are buried. Here's the pictures from our plantings (and obviously neither my son or I are very good at this job).

This is the headstone at the graves of my maternal grandparents -Adolph and Ellen E. Eld. I grew up with them and the house I live in today was built by them back in 1903. Grandpa died in March of 1957; Grandma in May of 1963 and both of them were 82 years old when they died. They had been married for 55 years when Grandpa died.

Axel and Elizabeth Werner, the childless couple who were best of friends of my Grandparents. I didn't know it growing up -learned this after I started doing family tree research -but Elizabeth was actually a cousin of my grandfather's! Let's see now if I can get the right generation here. My grandfather's grandfather -hence my great-great-great-grandfather -Anders Svenson -was married four times! My great-great-grandfather, Sven Anderson, was a child of his first marriage. Grandpa Anders second wife, Marta, was the grandmother of Elizabeth, and she was the only child of that marriage. Imagine my surprise when I received church records from Sweden that provided that information to me to learn almost forty years after Elizabeth's death that she and Grandpa were cousins and that I share a common ancestor with her! I have no clue as to why this information was never made known when I was growing up as I'm sure Grandpa had to have known they were cousins but that information had never been shared back then for some reason or other.

This is the gravestone marking my Mom's older sister and her husband -Albin and Ethel Gustafson. They never had any children and were the aunt and uncle my grandparents and I lived with during the winter of 1951-52 in their home in Jamestown, NY. I always spent much of my summer vacations back then with them as well as in Corry, PA, with my Mom's younger brother and his wife and family. Because I lived with this particular aunt and uncle while my Mom worked up in Niagara Falls then, Mom had to have papers drawn up to make Aunt Ethel and Uncle Butch my legal guardians. This was done mainly so they could sign my report cards from school as well as granting them permission to have me treated by a physician, if need be, in my Mom's absence. So obviously, growing up, I was very, very close to both of them.

While Clate and I were putting the flowers on the graves at that cemetery, Maya discovered something on the grave site directly behind that of my grandparents. Evidently the man buried there had been a veteran as there was a small American flag by his headstone and Maya, of course, was immediately drawn to that flag. So much so as a matter of fact, that I had to keep after her to please leave the flag alone! She kept picking it out of the ground and parading around, waving the flag as she marched merrily on her way there.

In some ways, I suppose it was ok that she did that -at least for Clate and me anyway, as it did help keep her a little occupied and not trying to add any of her own finishing touches to our planting. Although -she probably couldn't have done anything to hurt the appearances of our handiwork, could she?

After finishing up at that cemetery, we went up to Morrisdale to the Grandview Cemetery and the double plot that holds my Dad's parents, as well as eight of their ten children and three spouses too -my Mom, my Uncle George's wife, Henrietta and my Aunt Anna Mae's husband, Uncle Bob.

While Clate was doing the plantings on my parents' graves, Maya was doing her thing, checking out other graves in the vicinity. To my chagrin, she discovered a grave a couple of lots away from our family plot that had two pinwheels on each side of the headstone as well as a basket that had obviously been an Easter display and as such, contained numerous little plastic Easter eggs.

She came up to where Clate and I were working with a whole big handful of these plastic eggs and for a short time, I was worried we might incite World War III when I told her she had to put those eggs back where she had found them! When she refused to do that, I had to then take those eggs and return them to the basket on that particular grave.

Maya was not happy at all about my doing that either and kept jabbering at me that "NO, Gram! These are my eggs, not yours!" To which I kept telling her they weren't hers and had to be returned. She was pretty angry with me as I walked away towards that grave -eggs in hand -protesting my actions and asking me again and again, why I was taking "her eggs" away. Finally, I ended up telling her simply that taking things off graves of these people was stealing and that by her doing that, she was a "Grave Robber."

The last thing she said to me as I put those plastic eggs back in that basket on the grave was "I am not a Grave Robber, Gram!"

I know she doesn't understand the significance of cemeteries, graves, etc. But, I think by taking her along with us, eventually she will learn the importance of remembering, honoring the memory of some people, such as my Aunt Anna Mae who died a year ago and who Maya knew, as well as giving due respect and homage to the other family members laid to rest there who are her ancestors.

By trying to teach her about this, about the traditions involved and such, perhaps it will instill a sense of responsibility then in time in her.

And maybe -hopefully -by having either Mandy or Clate go with me to the cemetery each year, they too will know who is buried and where and what that person was within either my Mom's family tree or my Dad's family tree too.

And in the process, she'll also learn the true meaning and reason for this holiday -formerly Decoration Day to my generation, but Memorial Day now for hers.

And she'll learn too then the importance of paying respect to family and friends deceased as well as learning to do the same for any and all military personnel -whether it be those long since gone to their final rest or those who still serve and protect us and the values of our country.

Rest in peace yes, but also, maybe the idea of a little bright-eyed child, dancing around on the graves of those interred may somehow bring a little light and joy to those who sleep there now.


Travis said...

I think people still remember. I know I do. And you did as well.

It's not always in the outward displays, although I believe that they are important. But we can also say a humble and quiet thank you as we gather with our families on this day. We remember and pay tribute in the ways that seem best to us, and no way is better than any other way.

Those who made the ultimate sacrifice have my eternal gratitude.

Maggie May said...

I have never heard of Memorial Day. We have own own around November 11th when we a do a two minute silence for the fallen. At present we had a Bank Holiday for Whitsun which is around Ascension day. Slightly different each year, I think but always on a Monday.

The graves look lovely with the geraniums on there. well done.
Hope Maya put the flag back!