Memorial Day is celebrated in different ways by different people. Some choose to make traditional visits to cemeteries, lay floral arrangements on family gravesites, and pay respects to departed loved ones. Some prefer to attend parades or concerts and give tribute to fallen heroes. Others may simply choose to relax and host backyard cookouts. Many of us proudly display our flags and wear patriotic colors of red, white, and blue. However you choose to spend Memorial Day, I hope each and every one of you enjoys the day and spends it in a meaningful way with family and friends.
My thoughts right now are with loved one's on my mother's side who live in Kentucky. We can't be with them this weekend, but in the past 5 or 6 years, our families re-connected and we began (or perhaps continued) a Memorial weekend tradition which included visiting three separate country cemeteries in which family members rest. My Grandma Sallie and Uncle Bob (my mother's mother and brother), as well as extended family are buried in one of them.
On one visit to my grandmother's gravesite, my Uncle Don opened the trunk of his car, which revealed a box of Krispy Kremes, and began to offer each of us a donut. We were laughing and thought he'd lost his mind. I remember my mother asking him if he'd forgotten to eat breakfast. He said he brought the donuts to honor Sallie (his mother-in-law) and that he'd always taken her a box of donuts when he visited her. He wanted us to remember her happily eating her Krispy Kremes. So, right there in the cemetery, standing over my grandmother's grave, we ate donuts and shared stories about her.
Uncle Bill (my Aunt Maxine's husband) and members from his side of the family are buried in a second cemetery, and in the third, high atop a beautiful hill, rest my grandfather (my mother's dad), my great grandparents, and their family members. When my cousins and I last visited that hilltop, it was as if time stood still for a little while. There were fields of wildflowers as far as we could see. As we stood on the top of that hill, soft hot breezes blew through our hair and stung our eyes, but it was a beautifully peaceful place.
While standing on that hilltop, my cousins and I told stories and shared remembrances of relatives as we watched our mothers roaming the hillside looking for familiar names on tombstones and sharing memories of their own. Some might have considered us quite irreverent, but our laughter and joy was a way of celebrating the family members who had gone before us. Were it not for them, none of us would be alive. After paying our respects, laying flowers on graves, and searching for long lost relatives' final resting sites, we traveled back down the hill, bound for my Aunt Maxine's house.
Arriving at her house was like stepping back in time and I was a little girl again. When I saw the steep hill leading from the barn, I thought of the time my boy cousins insisted the big white work horse would be happy to carry my siblings and I bareback down that hill. What a ride that was! I walked up to the barn and could almost smell the tobacco hanging from the rafters. In my memory, I could see my aunt's garden on the hillside and taste the water from the old well.
When my family used to visit Aunt Maxine and Grandma Sallie, I would spend hours trying to tame the barn cats and kittens and by the time my family was ready to leave for home, I'd have them in my lap, to my Grandma's dismay. She felt if cats were fed well or treated as pets, they wouldn't be good mousers. I never accepted that attitude back then and I don't accept it today. I've never met a cat I didn't instantly love and want to hold. While visiting Aunt Maxine on Memorial Day a few years ago, I found a cat with her kittens, living in my aunt's shed. Just as in days long ago, I was drawn to those cats and sat on the steps of the shed for hours, trying to coax those cats to me, while my mother and my aunt kept poking their heads out of the door asking if I was ok and wondering why I was out there calling to the cats. Some things never change. Although I'm a grown woman with grandchildren, my dear mother and aunt were worried about me. I had a cat carrier in my car and was willing to take the cat and her kittens home with me and try to find someone to adopt them, but I didn't succeed in getting a single one of them to trust me and it broke my heart. They were just too wild.
When I entered my Aunt Maxine's house, walking on her linoleum-clad kitchen floor felt the same as it had years ago. There was the kitchen table with a blue checked cloth, worn from use and patched here and there. Farm hands had gathered at that table decades before, eager to partake of my Aunt Maxine's wonderful home cooking after a hard day in the field. I was not surprised to learn that my aunt still washed dishes using two large enamel pans, though she no longer had to draw the water from her well and heat it on the stove. She's had indoor plumbing for quite some time and I can remember the excitement generated when a bathroom was installed, just off the kitchen. I'll never forget those long treks to the outhouse and though I sometimes wish I could relive a few of those sweet country days at my aunt's house, I definitely would not want to re-visit that part of it.
Aunt Maxine is 90 now, and experiencing some major health issues. She has overcome so much through the years and I hope and pray she will fully recover from the challenges she's now facing. My mother wanted to be with her sister this weekend and possibly have a chance to visit with her other sister, but those plans are on hold for now and the traditional Memorial Day trek to Kentucky will have to wait.
This weekend, I can't help but think about Aunt Mackie, as she liked to be called. I can see her on the back porch breaking beans, and out in her garden picking ripe juicy tomatoes. I can almost taste her country cooking and hear the laughter and singing of three sisters as they washed dishes after a big family meal - and I wonder if there will ever be more days like that. On one particular visit, I asked if I could help Aunt Mackie in the kitchen and she very innocently asked if I knew how to peel potatoes. In my lifetime I've peeled mounds of potatoes, but her question caused me to realize she was seeing me as that little girl of years gone by and I wished I could turn back the clock.
My dear Aunt Mackie is very sweet but she's thrifty to a fault. She keeps plastic flowers for decorating the graves in a big Walmart bag under her bed. She pulls them out every year and knows on which grave each one is to be placed - and they absolutely must be placed in precisely the same way each year. She was hospitalized over Memorial Day weekend one year and tried to sign herself out against doctors' orders so she could come with us to the cemeteries. She promised the hospital staff she would return if they'd allow her to go, but they would not let her leave, so she carefully instructed my mother, two sisters, and myself as to the location of the florals under her bed and which ones were to be placed on whose graves. I'm not at all sure we placed them as accurately as she had directed, but we did the best we could.
It was only when my cousins revealed the reason, that we understood why our aunt was so upset that she couldn't be with us to decorate the graves that year. We'd thought it was because she wouldn't be able to spend time with us. That wasn't the problem. The real reason was that in my aunt's town, there is apparently some prestige in being one of the first to decorate loved ones' graves - a contest of sorts? Then, the friends and neighbors who visit the cemetery later in the day, can see how much those loved ones are adored and how fondly they are remembered. Neither my sisters, nor I, had ever heard of that "tradition", but it seemed very important to our aunt. The only thing stranger to us than that, was hearing my dear aunt admonish her adult sons to be sure to go back to those cemeteries early the next morning and retrieve her plastic flowers so no one would steal them. Ah, sweet memories.