When I was young, more than anything else, the holidays we celebrated together demonstrated and defined our sense of community. Each holiday had its own special rituals and observances. I first became aware of this one Memorial Day. In those days the term Decoration Day was also used interchangeably for Memorial Day, it has gone out of fashion now. It is a pity as at least there was a sense of ritual in decorating the graves, now Memorial Day is just another three-day weekend. Then, remembering the family’s dead was important.
I had not thought much about family and family traditions. Most children don’t, you just do what your parents do, never realizing how much had been passed down from one generation to the nest. Each year we carefully picked lilacs, iris, and poppies and put them into pails of water–one didn’t buy flowers from a store. Memorial Day fell too late usually for tulips or other spring flowers unless we had an unusually long, hard winter, which was not uncommon in upstate New York. We would pack a lunch, and pick up my mother’s parents to decorate the graves–a tribute of respect to people that I had never met who existed for mainly in faded, yellowed photographs taken years before.
Some graves were located in Fulton, New York–we had no family at the time buried in Hannibal, although now most of my family lie beneath the trees there–also in Taberg, New York where my grandmother’s family, the Thornes, were buried. The graves in Fulton were usually done quickly, but a trip to Taeberg took all day.
We would leave early and get there about noon. After our brief lunch we would go to the cemetery and find the Thorne graves–this was not easy as this was an old cemetery. Although my grandparent had done this more than once, there was always a sense of uncertainty where he graves were exactly and to me, as a child, it became an adventure to find them. Some graves were decorated with small American flags– the old 48-star kind, also flowers. Before leaving home, I, too, had hung a big cotton, hand-sewn 48-star flag on our house as we did on every patriotic holiday. As we walked that cemetery the graves of some had markers that said GAR, at the time I didn’t know that it meant that they had served in the Civil War, it was simply lost on me, as we were intent on finding my grandmother’s uncle’s resting place.
Now that we are older, my wife and I often visit the graves of the family members, such as my great great great grandfather Lt. Lipscomb Norvell in Nashville, who served our nation in so many wars and in some cases made the utlimate sacrifice for our nation. It is the link and the tread that ties us to those who came before, and all that we owe to them and as such it is important that they be remembered.