I recently attended a visitation at a funeral home. Entering the building, I was struck by how little experience I have had with observances of death, and the degree to which I am ignorant of long-held communal rituals that used to be familiar to all. I felt at a loss, vaguely incompetent, somewhat ashamed at my uncertainty.
My parents, on the other hand, have lived for all but a ten-year hiatus in their ancestral home, a relatively small Midwestern city; they know everyone, and recently vowed to try to attend fewer funerals (a tall order, when so many who die have lived a full, small-town life, with more than a casual connection to my folks). They are all too acquainted with what is called for in bringing closure to a life.
I never imagined that I would move so far from my early community, or become so insulated from the natural cycle of death in life. In my mind, the Memorial Days of my childhood linger like a slowly-unfolding dream, stretching out before me in endless summer hours of dewy shade and sunny expanses of lawn. My maternal grandmother lived around the block from us, my grandfather having died when my mother was a young bride. The visits to the cemetery on Memorial Day and his birthday were part of family life, offering their own idiosyncratic highlights.
Preparations for the trip to Hills of Rest were orderly and understood: the gathering of a bright bouquet of cut flowers from the yard (peonies and lilacs being the favored blooms), a jug of water, and a few small gardening tools to clear the gravesite of any unwelcome growth. At a certain level, I think my siblings and I really felt this was a visit to our grandfather, spoken of as such a kind and generous man; it was as close as we were going to get to knowing him. The cemetery was beautiful, carefully tended by quiet men with shovels. The gravestones were mostly flat, brass rectangles flush with the ground, with ingenious urns that could be pulled out of the marker and upturned to serve as vases, chained to the site by brass links. Pulling out the urn, pouring in the water, setting the blooms, all were privileged tasks to be shared in.
The adults would stay for a bit and talk, while we kids would explore the surrounding area, looking in particular for the grave markers of children we had discovered over the years. The icons of Little Bo Peep and her sheep, and a boy with a sailboat, were the objects of our searching, the chilling thought of a lost child inspiring a welter of emotions in each of us.
The more distant rural cemetery, where the previous generation of Norwegian immigrants lies, was a more occasional destination. My overwhelming memory of that windswept site is the narrow alley of trees these settlers planted, first thing, to break the incessant prairie winds from disturbing the peace of the departed.
My husband and I know we are heading into years of increasing loss. His father died two years ago. Unbidden, greater acquaintance with the close of life is on its way.
What do you remember of Memorial Days past? Do you mark the day now, distant as you may be from family and familiar ground?
Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse