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Bygone Memorial Days



Memorial Day Weekend is the unofficial start to the summer season. When I was a kid, Memorial Day was one of my favorite holidays. I loved everything about Memorial Day, from going to the “cemeterian” to family picnics, not to mention it was the sign that school was nearly over for the year. In my opinion, Memorial Day was right up there with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. As an adult, Memorial Day doesn’t hold quite the same meaning. Also, times have changed, the family has morphed, and we no longer hold the same traditions or celebrations. I miss the Memorial Days of my childhood.


When I was a kid, it was a treat to go to the cemeteries and tend the graves of those who had gone before us. My grandmother, mother, and I would usually go to all the local cemeteries and “clean up” the graves, plant flowers, and place wreaths on the tombstones. We would pack a lunch, along with garden tools, flats of flowers, and gallon jugs of water to water the plants. It was a considerable undertaking and always felt like a significant, almost sacred event. While we were working on the graves or eating lunch, my grandmother would talk about the people whose graves we were tending. There was her son, Clarence Paul, aka Buddy, who died at a young age from a condition my grandmother referred to as water on the brain. There was also three-year-old Judy, who died of influenza. We also tended the graves of my grandmother’s parents and sisters. We would go to three “cemeterians,” this is what I called cemeteries when I was young.


I always loved the solace of the cemetery. It was so quiet, with flowers everywhere. It felt like and looked like a vast, beautiful park filled with flowers and fancy tombstones. My reward for helping and being patient while the work was done was to stroll through the cemetery and look at and read all the headstones. It was like a scavenger hunt to find children’s graves or the oldest date in the cemetery. Sometimes, if I found an old and neglected grave of a child, I would plant any leftover flowers so that child wouldn’t feel left out or lonely. Neglected graves have always made me sad.


The cemetery where my grandmother’s family is buried is broken down into two sections. There is the Protestant cemetery where my grandmother’s family resides, and there is the Catholic side. When I was a child, my grandmother forbade me to set foot on the Catholic side of the cemetery. She never offered an explanation, but the look on her face and her disdain made me believe something horrible would happen. I imagined the ground opening up and swallowing me if I set foot on that hallowed ground. It wasn’t until much later I realized she was prejudiced against Catholics. When I finally figured this out, I laughed because it seemed so ridiculous. I feel like it was a generational thing. My grandmother had a “term” for almost every background, religion, or ethnicity. She didn’t use these terms to be unkind or derogatory; it is simply how it was. Thank goodness things have changed.


On Memorial Day Monday, we always had the Tonkin Family reunion. This day was always a day to look forward to because I would get to spend the day with my cousin/best friend. We would play on the playground, sneak into the abandoned fairgrounds, play horses on the track, eat watermelon, spit the seeds, and play pranks on our uncles and older siblings. There was always a ton of food. It felt like there were miles of tables for everything from roast beef to homemade pies. My grandfather and his sisters were in charge of the reunion, and it was always an event. As time passed and the sisters passed away, the younger generation took over, and things were never the same. Sadly, as the sisters passed away, the families began to drop out of the reunion. Soon it was a ragtag group of my uncles, their families, and a few straggling distant cousins from the other families. Eventually, the decision was made to hold the reunion no longer.


Now, all Memorial Day is, is an earmark of the upcoming summer season. There are no picnics. I no longer go with my mother to tend the graves. Sometimes on a whim of nostalgia, I drive past the cemeteries where I have such lovely memories, and it saddens me that often they aren’t even mowed anymore. Times have changed. With that change, it seems the pride and reverence for those who have passed have gone away. No one volunteers to mow the little church cemeteries anymore. There are more and more graves that appear forgotten and neglected. Families no longer gather to clean up the graves, plant flowers, or enjoy a peanut butter sandwich among the headstones of passed loved ones. This has led me to reevaluate my wishes for my remains once I die. I asked The Bibbed Wonder to have a mausoleum built on the farm. Of course, he refuses. I then conceded to being cremated and sprinkled on the farm fields that I love, but he says if he does that, the crops will grow in angry and bitter. Sigh, his humor really tries my patience sometimes. Once I have finished lamenting about his rudeness, he takes it a step further and tells me any remanent of my remains or a mausoleum will drop the property value. Sigh. He’s tough to like sometimes.


Anyhow, I have always had an issue with being buried. When questioned about my abhorrence of burial, I logically explain that I won’t be able to get out if I need to. This only leads to laughter and quizzical looks. I don’t really relish the idea of cremation either, but if my rude husband doesn’t build me a monument, I guess I’ll go with cremation. At least I won’t ever be one of those sadly neglected graves that everyone has forgotten, and nobody puts flowers upon. Once my bean is gone, no one will care to put flowers on my grave, that makes me sad.


This weekend, I may load up my bean and take her to all the cemeteries where my ancestors lie. We might pack sandwiches, find a nice shade tree, and talk about those who have gone before us. Perhaps, she will enjoy walking the cemetery and reading the tombstones. If nothing else, I can share a bit of the memory from my childhood with her. I may even take her to the Catholic cemetery. My grandmother would be horrified! On this holiday weekend, stay safe, be smart, honor those who have gone before you, and keep washing your hands.

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