My grandmother wanted to picnic in the field. That’s all she was talking about, Decoration Day in the blowing prairie of eastern Oklahoma, the day her family met at the cemetery on the outskirts of what was barely a town. They were decorating graves, which meant first pulling weeds, but only after standing around for a bit, like you do, in any graveyard where your people are buried.
You stand, you look down, maybe look away, look down again. Decoration Day, Memorial Day, birthday, maybe, or Christmas, whenever you visit, that’s what you do.
The Paxton clan would not have been alone in the Fair View cemetery. Other families would work and picnic on the grounds as well. Nothing my grandmother liked better than a picnic, in a cemetery in Talala, Oklahoma, or in her own backyard.
Can you imagine for a moment a family in Elmwood, quilts spread out, sandwiches unwrapped, soda cans knocked over in the grass, someone with a butcher knife and a watermelon?
Well, neither could we, even as children, and we did our best to ignore her when she spoke in that wistful way of picnics and tombstones, because that was the only power that we had.
We showed up, not with picnic baskets, but tubs of peonies, irises, cut flowers from the garden. A watering can to be filled at the pump with the red handle, that one, by the side of the road. We walked around while my mother was working, while my grandmothers were working, but the job was quickly done. We went early in the morning, the dew still clinging to the blades of grass, and got back in time for lunch.
But I don’t remember if we decorated the graves exactly on Memorial Day. It seems that we must have returned later in the week to collect the vases and threw away the faded flowers. But maybe not.
So that’s my question. Is it a tradition to decorate on Memorial Day or for Memorial Day? It didn’t bother me until recently.
After my grandmothers died and my mother was the sole owner of the Memorial Day Ritual, we started visiting Elmwood on the Saturday before the holidays. The morning calls made the rounds, and whoever wanted to follow up did. For a while we still had fun with fresh flowers, but Dad was a threat with the lawn mower and eventually the yard was bare.
The mother began to regret the expense of the purchased flowers, so she instead bought flowering plants that she could later salvage and use in her window boxes. Now my sister and I do the same. We dig little divots to hide the price tags on the pots, block them in the grass and fear they won’t be there when we get back.
But, of course, they are.
We leave on Saturday and collect the thermal baths on Monday, the holidays themselves, before the day gets too hot and they fade beyond resuscitation. But on Monday, Memorial Day, I see an elderly couple walking cautiously, he has his elbow, she has a handful of flags. They walk uphill, an arrangement sitting on the hood of their car, they will have to make two trips. Lots of gaping car trunks, gardening activity around the stones even though Elmwood is meant to be in perpetual care. And I’m driving by to pick up our potted plants, to drive them home after their short time as a souvenir, and I wonder if I’m having the wrong protocol.
Even when I was young, I felt like putting flowers on graves was more of a duty, if not a chore. Not an onerous chore, but my mom was always unsure of when we should go, what we should take, who goes with her. There were still hemming and hawing.
Now Kathy and I tend to the graves, and we, too, never get very excited, but get back to the job once we hit the top of the hill in Elmwood.
I never find the Skillmans, my mother’s parents, even if they are not five meters from the McDonoughs. There is one place left, by my grandmother Opal, and I want it. I stand in empty space and admire what my sight will be. Then, Kathy and I decide to visit other cemeteries, other families. It’s not the meadow or a picnic, but it takes all day and we’re happy.