All my ancestral family has passed,
but a Memorial Day visit to the cemetery reunites me with their spirits.
Memorial Day in my childhood imagination always dawns bright and clear with blue skies and puffy white clouds. My parents, brother, and I kept a tradition of visiting the cemetery though we had no fallen military in the family. Rather, we visited the graves of family. Both Mom and Dad had grown up in Manchester, NH, so all their relatives rest in the same place.
As a kid, I wore a freshly ironed cotton dress, sometimes matching my mother’s, or red, white, and blue. Now we could again wear our white shoes, tucked away since last Labor Day, a Yankee tradition. Dad drove us to Pine Grove Cemetery. We had picked up the floral planter, a cement urn edged in cement vines and grapes, at Blake’s Greenhouse. The flowers rarely varied: red geraniums, purple ageratum, and a flowing ornamental grass.
At Pine Grove Cemetery, a tranquil, park-like 175 acres of prettily-maintained pond, trees, and lush grass, we visited the Swedish relatives first, the closest to the entrance. Mum whispers to walk next to, not on, the graves. We speak in soft voices, like in a church. Safe and content, I vaguely remember the great Auntie Astrea who crocheted a doll’s bridal gown for me. Dad finds a can and water spigot to refresh his mother’s red geranium provided by perpetual care. He pauses in front of the gravestone that lists so many of his family and says nothing.
About a quarter mile farther on, we arrive at Mom’s family plot where “pink geraniums for the twins” commemorate the little sisters who died in childhood. They would have been my aunties. My Nana and Grampy rest here near an overhanging maple tree. A little way down the lane repose the great-greats I never met, family with unusual names like “Alvah” and the names recurring every generation like “Catherine.” More hushed conversation. More deadheading the flowers. Dad hefts the planter into position, and we admire it.
Sometimes we go for ice cream afterward, a huge treat in the days of refrigerators with freezers smaller than a good dictionary. I remember when I was about six years old, I howled when my precious ice cream toppled off the cone and into my lap. My Swedish Grammy tried to console me and stuff the ice cream back into the cone. So long ago …
Then last week, I walked with a friend and shared these reminiscences. Turns out her childhood did not include Memorial Day visits to the cemetery, despite military members in the family. I ask other friends about their Memorial Day traditions – and am taken aback that so few included a cemetery. As a child, I assumed everyone lived as I did. Now I know better – yet hold onto the traditions that have shaped me.
None of my grandparents, aunts, or uncles, great- or otherwise are left. Most cousins have moved away. Mine is a solitary observance as I retrace my childhood Memorial Day circuit. Again, I visit Dad’s Swedish forebears first. Now I wonder, what was it like to leave home and sail to a new country and new language? Uproot children? Start over? The Emigrant Novels by Vilhelm Moberg gave me insights: the tiny grave left behind; appalling shipboard conditions; the stoicism; the hope of a few apple seeds from the Old Country. Now that I, too, have relocated from decades in Wyoming and left friends behind, I begin to understand. Your tough times led to my better times. I’ve stood on your shoulders. You worked hard in the Amoskeag Mills and went to war. I have indoor plumbing, an education, freedom. Now my children have educations, too, and loving spouses and still the freedom. We sow, so that another generation may reap. And so it has gone for centuries.
I visit my maternal ancestors and wonder how my Nana coped with the loss of three children. Would my grandfather, a carpenter, be pleased to know I still have the wooden box he crafted?
Next, I visit Longmeadow Cemetery, so tiny compared with Pine Grove. Located in Auburn, NH, a town founded in 1720, the entry gap in the stone wall is sized for horse and buggy, not 21st century vehicles. I visit because my parents are here in the town they called home for 50 years. My brother has kindly taken responsibility for the flowers. Always red geraniums. Mum loved red. I usually bring water to refresh them and a jar of lilacs. This year, however, the lilacs have already gone by.
A few yards away repose the couple with whom they double dated. I recognize Village names from my early years. In this atmospheric place, I rarely see visitors. Many of the monuments and markers, cracked, tilted, and crusted with lichen, date to the early 1800s. That no flowers freshen these graves suggests that they have faded from memory.
My children have joined my cemetery pilgrimage a few times and would again if I asked them, I know. For the most part, it’s to support me though not particularly meaningful for them. My children didn’t know my ancestors. My Grampy. The great-aunties and uncles. The other aunties and uncles. The cousin with cerebral palsy who died young. In fact, my children barely knew my parents, their grandparents, because they grew up 2,000 miles away. My adopted children, grafts on the family tree, claim different ancestries and need relevant traditions. In fact, it's time for all of my children to establish and claim their own family traditions.
In the meantime, I continue my own. My Memorial Day cemetery visit steadies me in a reeling, oft irrational world. This holiday, I go to be reunited with loads of family, minus the boat rides and barbecue. I go to say thank you. I miss you. I love you still. ###
Invitation/Your Turn – Write about your Memorial Day observances as a child OR how you commemorate a favorite relative.
“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow/between the crosses, row on row…” – John McRae