Fifty-five years ago, today would have been the day when my grandmother, my mother, my brother, sister, and I would spend most of the day, driving from cemetery to cemetery, decorating graves. We always planted potted red geraniums that filled the back of the car.
Because my family was of a decidedly matriarchal bent, it never struck me as odd until I was an adult that we only visited the graves of ancestors on the maternal side of our family.
We visited the run-down 19th century City Cemetery where my great-great grandmother’s family is buried (and which was by that time surrounded by a poor urban neighborhood). We visited the heavily wooded, turn-of-the-century Riverside Cemetery, where my great-grandparents and now my maternal grandparents are buried. Riverside has always seemed like our ultimate home turf… a kind of country club for dead people. Our Memorial Day tradition was one of the principal ways family history was related to us and a powerful point of connection with ancestors we never knew but who became our familiars.
I vaguely remember asking about visiting the graves of my grandfather’s parents who were buried at the Notre Dame Cemetery, only to be told that Aunt Hildegarde always took care of those. To this day I never have visited their graves… a grievous omission I shall have to remedy before I die. My mother is buried there now, but I never did learn how to find my great-grandparents’ graves.
I recall regretting, too, that the women of our family never took us to visit our paternal grandfather’s crypt across the road at the Highland Cemetery. “Daddy Jack” died when I was eight and is entombed in the mausoleum there, an intimidating marble building with Greek columns and hallways that echoed. It was a scary and thrilling place to visit.
Yet visits there would have to wait until we’d go with Nana, our father’s mother, a cross between Gracie Allen and Miss Daisy and a terrible driver to boot. I remember Nana always had trouble working the lock to the heavy bronze doors. Nana also insisted that we must never run inside that somber place, and never ever test its echoes. (Now that I have my own key to the place, it’s not nearly as big nor as exciting as I remember it, and the urge to hear HELLO-Hello-hello reverberating off of marble has long since passed.) Nana and my dad are both interred there now.
As happy as I am living at Estrella Vista, on Memorial Day weekends I do feel sad that no one in our family is left back home to keep up the geranium-planting tradition. I’m sorry I’m not there to do it (but not enough to move back). More than anything else that’s still there from the old days, on this day I miss the cemeteries.
I also regret that I cannot visit Holly’s gravesite on the hill at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis where she is interred next to her dad and her maternal grandparents. I used to spend many quiet hours there alone, remembering. Before moving here I always took extravagant bouquets of cut flowers there for Memorial Day as a token of my remembrance.
As families become so much more scattered and our culture becomes so much less place-based, I wonder if this will contribute to the amnesia of coming generations about their roots. The ancestors are never completely dead unless they are forgotten.
Yet I have so many family relics and mementos with me here, Estrella Vista is a place where my ancestors still live. Hell, I am an all-in-one genetic relic myself.
My ancestors live in me as long as I remember them.
Groove of the Day
As a run-up to writing this piece, I had to call my sister Christine to be reminded of the name of the potted flowers we used to plant. (No, my mind’s not going now that I’ve reached ‘official’ old age; I’ve never been able to remember the names of plants and trees.)
We got into a conversation about how our mother would lay out a picnic lunch at the cemetery and I would always refuse to ‘desecrate’ the graves with such frivolousness and spent picnic time exploring other families’ graves. Chris remembers partaking in several graveyard picnics and I remember none.
I’ve just now heard this story about the Southern tradition of Decoration Day, presented by Scott Simon on NPR. I think you will enjoy it.
As told in this story, the practice of picnicking among headstones is cherished in many parts of the South. My mom always scolded my inflexible rectitude saying, “They do this in New Orleans.” I guess some of my Southern friends who read this piece may think I was a regular Cotton Mather as a kid. Damned Yankee.
“You always had strong ideas,” says Chrissy.
Christine reminds me that we did visit our great-grandparents’ graves at Notre Dame Cemetery around the time our mother was buried there. Now I do vaguely remember… I could probably even find my way there again. I obviously was not “all there” that day.
Memory is a tricky thing.