Last week, we drove seven miles from where we live to the cemetery. It didn’t take long to put flowers on the graves and come back home, but the doing of it once a year always brings back memories about when I was a kid. Perhaps the reminders are due to the fact that my mother bought their stone with a vase on either end and gave me instructions to put red roses on Dad’s side and any spring flowers on her side.
Decoration Day is now Memorial Day. The holiday started after the Civil War to remember fallen soldiers on both sides. It’s still the day to pay amage to the brave military that give their lives to keep the rest of us free. My family didn’t think of the day as the start of the summer holidays, because we seldom went far from home and never took vacations. That day was just what the name implied. A day to decorate the graves of family and friends which for my parents, my brother, John, and me was an all day process.
I think I’ve probably told you some of this before but here goes again. When I was a kid we lived on an 80 farm in southern Missouri. Times were economically tough for farmers. Mom and Dad were always trying to think of ways to supplement their income. They sold flower baskets to take to cemeteries. So several months before Decoration Day while we listened to The Lone Ranger and Cisco Kid on the radio in the evening, John and I put together pink, blue and white carnations from Puff tissues. That’s when Puffs were perfumed. Mom put together various colors of crape paper roses. Help the roses last longer in the elements, Mom melted paraffin wax in a pan and dunked the roses to coat them. This was before plastic and then silk flowers. While we worked on flowers, Dad gathered sticks, dried them and constructed log cabin baskets in different sizes and wreaths. Mom did the flower arrangements. After all the customers had bought theirs, we were left with assortment of baskets left hanging from the nails on the back porch wall. If what was left wasn’t enough, we made up more for our use.
Decoration day dawned sticky hot. John and I had baskets wedged between us in the seat and around our feet on floor of our 1935 Chevy. The red country roads to all the cemeteries consisted of natural rock and potholes. We didn’t have to look at the rising red cloud behind our car to know the road was dusty. We watched the dust settle on everything in the car, because we had the windows cranked down. The car didn’t have air.
Since we would be gone all day, Mom fixed a picnic lunch of bologna sandwiches, cookies, a jar of coffee for Dad and Mom and a jar of cool aide for my brother and me. The bologna was the good kind. The grocery store sliced the meat off a large roll in a red wrapper. We just needed enough food for lunch, because we had to be home in time for my parents to milk cows at night.
Some of the old cemeteries were not well care for so my parents spent a little time at each place, cleaning around the graves. John and I made a pass around the cemetery, looking at the old tombstones. Dad always cautioned us not to step on the graves. Out of respect sure, but since the wooden coffins deteriorated long ago, we might find ourselves sinking along with collapsing soil in the middle of the graves. Mom’s worry was the poisonous snakes lurking in the shaggy grass – copperheads and timber rattlers. "Watch where you step," she admonished at each cemetery.
Each year, my brother and I were given a history lesson about relatives that died before we were born. We saw them through the eyes of our parents. We had to walk a quarter mile to get to Montevallo Cemetery. The timber lined path led down a steep embankment and through a shallow creek. Dad stopped the car. We waded the creek, stepping on rocks as much as possible, walked through a pasture to the cemetery gate where amid Confederate soldiers and bushwhackers my father’s two grandfathers were laid to rest, both Union soldiers buried with wives and offspring. One grandfather was a farmer and the other a druggist back in the day when plants gathered from the timber were turned into potions and compounds. This civic minded grandfather was a justice of the peace and on the school board.
His son, my grandfather, was, on the other hand, a partier. He became a druggist after his schooling to become a doctor was cut short by the death of Great Grandfather at 54 in the 1800’s. He took over the family drugstore from his mother who kept the business going until he came home. Grandpa only made it to 50. In all fairness, a hereditary heart condition was the cause of death but this fun loving, good natured man’s life style may have hastened his demise. He didn’t miss a town celebration and most towns had them in those days complete with parades and games. This was our musically talented Grandpa. He played the trumpet for a Woodsman band in the parades.
Not far down the road, we visited Mom’s two baby sisters graves at Olive Branch Cemetery. One baby was stillborn in 1919. The other died from measles in 1929. In the early 1900’s, Mom was born the oldest in a family of eleven in times when babies had a tough time surviving, and all but those two lived long lives.
In Virgil City Cemetery is the graves of Mom’s great grandparents on her father’s side She was sent to live with them when she was 16 and stayed two years to care for them. Great Grandma passed away, and Great Grandpa moved in with Mom’s grandparents, ending Mom’s responsibilities. Everyone took care of their elderly relatives in those days until they died. Mom remembered her Great Grandfather as a gentle soul. Great Grandma had the title Blind Grandma tacked on her for future generations to differentiate her from others. Grandma went blind when she stepped out of the outhouse one day you know which toped my list of why I preferred not to use outhouses as a kid.
Mom’s grandmother was known as Indian Grandma within the family. This was not a matter for discussion with other people. Not even us kids. She was young when Grandpa Luther brought her home from Kansas. They became a well respected couple. Though people suspected Indian Grandma’s lineage no one pried. This grandma I knew well. When we’d go visit her after Grandpa died, she’d come spend a couple days with us. Grandma slept with me. During the day, her salt and pepper braided hair crowned her head. Before she went to bed, she’d unbraid her hair and brush it.
About ten years ago and a couple years before she passed away, we took my mother back to Missouri. It was a going back in time trip as we traveled all those dusty roads again. We took plenty of flowers so Mom could decorate all the graves just like in the fifties. Mom enjoyed herself on that trip. After ten long years of taking care of my father who had Alzheimer’s, she needed to go home and connect with the past which held pleasant memories for our whole family. Hopefully, this last journey home was a comfort to her after so many difficult years taking care of Dad. Also, she had the peace of mind that she taught her daughter well a life lesson years ago. Remember and honor those that came and went before you, because they had a hand in shaping who you are.