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

Listen to Elvis Presley performing “I’ll Remember You”



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.

Listen to “Decoration Day”

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.

I wasn’t.

“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.

5 Responses to “memoria”

  1. 1 Matt
    May 28, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Beautiful sentiment, Dan. You have reminded us all what Memorial Day is about.

    I have taken my sons on genealogy fieldtrips to visit the graves of family members back to our Quaker ancesstors’ arrival in Pennsylvania, in the late 1690’s. At first they were obviously uneasy about visiting cemeteries, but as they began to realize the familial connections of generation after generation, it became a sort of scavenger hunt to search about and find as many family members’ markers as they could, writing down the names and dates to research later. It is a wonderful thing to establish such connection to origin, but it can be done as well through research and sharing treasured family relics and especially through story telling.

    May I also suggesst http://www.findagrave.com/ for those interested in doing a virtual visit to their ancestor’s final resting places. Obviously not all cemeteries or burials are listed, but you can request someone to visit and photograph markers as long as you know the cemetery and basic identifying data. If this really interests you, you can adopt a small local cemetery and post your own contributions for others to visit and share with their families.

    Finally, on this weekend we take time to remember those who served and often sacrificed their lives in service to our nation and its guiding principles. I have been fortunate to be able to share with my sons the long history of our family’s tradition of service, beginning with our nation’s fight for independence and continuing to present day.

  2. 2 andy rea
    May 28, 2011 at 11:26 am

    WOW what beautiful thoughts. This brought back many childhood memories. 😮 ))))

  3. 3 Julianne
    May 28, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    You prompted many memories for me today. Also made me question whether I’m being inconsistent in my practices of rememberance. I’ve never taken or sent flowers to a funeral, but enjoyed and brought flowers to many a “decoration” at Rich Hill Regular Baptist Church in the Appalachian mountains. I’ve never heard it as “decoration day”, although “decoration Sunday” wasn’t uncommon. Usually just “decoration”, as in “Don’t forget that decoration’s in two weeks.” There were often informal picnics while decorating the cemetery on Saturday, and always a sing in the decorated cemetary on Sunday. These didn’t always happen on Memorial weekend. I got the impression the area churches had worked together to put their decorations on the calendar so that folks whose families contained people from different congregations could attend decoration for all their departed family members.

    I think the second verse of this old Carter Family song sums up my feelings about the practice of sending flowers.

    Oddly enough, I’ve always found cut flowers indoors to be depressing and asked boyfriends over the years to please NOT bring me flowers (unless they were growing and likely to later produce vegetables, of course). I’m heartened that your family made a practice of bringing potted flowers instead of cut flowers.

    I just listened to the NPR bit on decoration day. Wow! The Paul Brown who did the bit is an old friend I haven’t thought of in a while. First when the memory of the Carter family song popped into my head – his wife is the first person I ever heard sing this. She used to play and sing in a band with my ex-husband. Then there his voice was on the NPR recording. I think there was little bit of the theme from the Twilight Zone playing somewhere in my head when I listened to that.

  4. 4 Tim
    May 28, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Having been fortunate enough to have older parents(Father b. 1898, Mother b. 1905), I heard the term Decoration Day more often than Memorial Day. Also heard Armistice Day and a lot of other things that are not common anymore including many poor, white, country expressions. I don’t visit graves, probably more from selfishness than anything else. I still have memories of loved ones and that counts for more to me. Someday, I would like to visit the Wall, but probably not over Memorial Day weekend.

  5. 5 Jeanne
    May 29, 2011 at 9:55 am

    You bring back similar memories to me. We actually did the same. I was brought up to never walk in front of the grave stone. It was improper to walk were the body laid. Funny,to this day, when I visit I stand at the feet or on the side. I also remember going around with my brother to grave sites while my mom and aunts planted the flowers for memorial day, and lifting the caps up of the old picture frames to see what the person looked like. I always said a silent prayer for them. Those were mysterious and somewhat frightening days I recall. Yet they are days I embrace as I recall the cohesiveness of the family. My mom, her sisters, my siblings, cousins, and friends all up the cemetery showing respect to our loved ones.

    Oddly, as an adult, though I still respect the old traditions, part of me does not understand the expense, the land use, the total manner of how we need to keep alive the dead by means of material/environmental use. I personally never liked the thought of being buried. (“Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust”.)– We stay alive by fleshly means here on earth; our family, our friends. Eventually, all of our ancestors and friends pass, and there is no one to decorate our grave sites. Our pictures may be visited by children, like myself as a child, running from grave to grave to see what we looked like. But our story is never known. Some of the most giving people in this world did good deeds without the desire to be known.

    I work with many people in need. I cannot help but recall an elder gentleman. He was so eccentric and he caught my attention with his dry sense of humor. He was dying of cancer. He had a good friend that was supportive but he was alone. He told me he did not want to live like a “hermit” and he wanted to go from this earth in most uncomplicated manner he could. Nothing long and drawn out. His family had all passed. He would play like he was sleeping or confused when he did not want to be bothered but he would perk up when I visited him. I remember telling him that he needs to let other people know he is alert so they do not think he is demented. He laughed. Weeks later, he ironically ended up with hospice care at the same facility my aunt was in. I visited him and he cracked another joke in his weakened state. He died the next day. What I learned from his friend after he had passed was that this man was a teacher, never married, his brother was a deceased Bishop. His friend said he had given throughout the years so much money to charities in private. He knew who he was, and where he was going. He had no fear. Our family and friends keep us alive, but God knows our hearts. He tells the living to keep living and not to dwell on the dead, for they are alive.

    Do not stand by my grave and weep
    For I am not there.
    I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow.
    I am diamonds that glint on snow.
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
    I am the gentle autumn rain.
    When you awaken in the morning hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush of butterflies in joyous flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry.
    I am not there.
    I did not die.

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