My grandmother wanted to picnic on the grounds. It is all she talked about, Decoration Day out on the blowing prairie of east Oklahoma, the day her family met at the cemetery on the outskirts of town, which was hardly a town. They decorated graves, which meant, first they pulled weeds, but only after standing around a bit, as you do, in any cemetery where your people are buried.
You stand, you look down, maybe gaze off into the middle distance, look down again. Decoration Day, Memorial Day, birthday, maybe, or Christmas, whenever you visit, this is what you do.
The Paxton clan would not have been alone out there in Fair View Cemetery. Other families would be working and picnicking on the grounds, too. Nothing my grandmother liked better than a picnic, in a Talala, Oklahoma cemetery or in her own backyard.
Can you imagine for just a moment, a family up at Elmwood, quilts spread out, unwrapping sandwiches, soda cans tipping over in the grass, someone with a butcher knife and a watermelon?
Well, we couldn’t either, even as children, and we did our best to ignore her when she talked in that wistful way about picnics and gravestones, because it was the only power we had.
We showed up, not with picnic baskets, but tubs of peonies, iris, flowers cut from the yard. A watering can to fill at the pump with the red handle, that one there, by the road. We wandered around while my mother worked, while my grandmothers worked, but the job was soon done. We went early in the morning, dew still clinging to blades of grass, and home in time for lunch.
But I can’t remember if we decorated the graves exactly on Memorial Day. It seems we must have, returning later in the week to collect the vases, discard the dead flowers. But maybe not.
So, this is my question. Is it tradition to decorate on Memorial Day or for Memorial Day? It hasn’t bothered me until recently.
After my grandmothers died and my mother was sole proprietress of the Memorial Day ritual, we began visiting Elmwood on Saturday before the holiday. Early morning calls made the rounds, and whoever wanted to tag along, did. For a while we still fooled around with fresh flowers but Daddy was a menace with the lawnmower and eventually the yard was bare.
Mother began to regret the expense of bought flowers, so she bought, instead, flowering plants she could retrieve later and use in her planters. Now my sister and I do the same. We dig little divots to hid the price tags on the pots, nestle them into the grass, and worry they won’t be there when we return.
But, of course, they are.
We go on Saturday and reclaim therm on Monday, the holiday itself, before the day gets too hot and they wilt beyond reviving. But on Monday, Memorial Day, I see an elderly couple walking gingerly, he has her elbow, she has a fistful of flags. They walk at an incline, an arrangement sitting on the hood of their car, they will have to make two trips. There are lots of car trunks gaping open, gardening activity around stones even though Elmwood is supposed to be perpetual care. And I am driving by to get our potted plants, to take them home after their scant time in memoriam, and I wonder if I have the protocol wrong.
Even when I was young I got the sense of putting flowers on the graves was more a duty, if not a chore. Not an onerous chore, but one my mother was always iffy about when we should go, what we should take, who’s going with her. There was always some hemming and hawing.
Now Kathy and I do the graves, and we hem and haw, too, never very excited. but coming around to the task once we crest the hill at Elmwood.
I can never find the Skillmans, my mother’s parents, even though they are not five yards from the McDonoughs. There is one spot left, by my Granny Opal, and I want it. I stand in the empty space and admire what will be my view. Then, Kathy and I decide to visit other cemeteries, other family. It isn’t the prairie or a picnic lunch, but it takes all day and we are glad.