Thursday, May 24, 2012

Memorial Day Memories

Losing family members to untimely death at an early age seems to bring certain things into sharper focus for you even during childhood.

My Grandmother Horack lost her mother as a small child. Her Dad then moved in with his mother and maiden sister to help him raise his children. My grandmother and my grandfather married and had three children, one, my aunt’s twin brother died at six months of age being born with a hole in his heart, which in those days wasn’t something they were skilled to do anything about. Having lost loved ones throughout her entire life time, especially a child, made my Grandma someone who frequented the cemetery with regularity. She planted flowers on the graves, preferring peonies that would bloom around Memorial Day every year, ensuring that there would always be flowers on the graves, even after she was gone.

As a little girl I remember my Grandma Horack loading my cousin JoAnn and I up in her little 55 Chevy, with jars full of water, stopping by and picking up her friend Gertrude, and heading to the cemetery to “tend” the graves.

We would deadhead the peonies that had bloomed that year giving them a drink, and clean up any weeds or debris that accumulated around the grave stones. While we did this Grandma talked about those people who were buried there, she told and retold the stories of how our ancestors came over on the boat from Europe. How Great-Great Grandmother Somer had decided to wean the baby before the trip thinking it would make things easier, only to have them run out of drinking water on the voyage and her sharing her allotment with the infant.

She shared the struggles they experienced in carving out a life on the prairie. How our Great-Great Grandpa Somer, after coming to America, didn’t find it to his liking and left his wife and children behind returning to Bohemia, thus no grave beside our Great-Great Grandmother. How our Great Grandfather Horack was so poor that when he died they buried him in what they referred to as “potters field”, a section of the cemetery where there are no stones because poor people could afford none. By the time someone could  afford one, no one could remember just exactly where Grandpa-Great was buried. As she would pull a weed or water a plant, or wash the bird droppings off the stones, these stories coupled with the pictures on the walls of her home, or in frames on her dresser made the people real.

Memorial Day wasn’t the only day of the year we went to the cemetery.  In the summer when the weather was especially hot, and we hadn’t had enough rain, we would load up and take water out to the cemetery to water the flowers that she had planted earlier in the year. Tending the graves was a responsibility that she didn’t take lightly. Passing on the history of those people was something that brought her joy. She would tell stories of my dad, as we tended his grave, and talk about my grandpa. However, I noticed she spoke little of Paul, my aunt’s twin; that was too deep a wound to remember. But I always noticed that she would prepare a special bouquet for baby Paul's grave on Memorial Day.

These were not sad times, quite the contrary, these were wonderful times. It brought Grandma and her friend great joy to reminisce about the days gone by when sorrows of losing loved ones were frequent enough that death was just a part of life that you wove into the everyday tapestry, adding the dark colors to offset the light ones.

After Grandma died, my mother and I continued to go to the cemetery. As a young girl I would ride my bike the mile outside of town to the cemetery, checking the graves, breaking off the dead heads of the peonies as grandma had taught me. I would pull a weed, and knock the bird droppings off the stones remembering the stories she had told over and over.

When Roger and I go to the Ozarks to visit Roger’s brother, we always stop by the cemetery where Roger’s parents are buried. Roger’s mother was cremated, and we planted a tree over her ashes, so we check on the tree to see if it is still alive....it is. When we were first married Roger thought I was kind of strange for wanting to go home for Memorial Day. He didn’t get it. He does now.

I think the tradition of tending to the dead, and their graves are something we learned from the Bible when the women returned to Jesus’ tomb to anoint His body. Care was given to the dead, a sign of respect, regard for their memory. The joy that comes in visiting the cemetery is the constant reminder that your loved ones aren’t really there. Grandma knew this, but she also knew that by taking us there, she was teaching us respect for our ancestors, and regard for their memory. She was instilling in us a sense of family that she knew would continue on down through the generations.

I learned a lot going to the cemetery with my Grandmother. I learned that remembering the dead can be something pleasant. It can bring you comfort. It reminds you of the ones that have gone before you and battled through. It teaches that death is a part of life, not the end, but a part. It brings you strength. It brings you comfort. It gives you roots and wings. I think Grandma knew this, and that is why she started us young. A foundation of family, living or departed, is never a bad thing.

A repost from Nestin' and Restin