It’s Memorial Day.
Do you know what your plans are?
OK so it’s not really Memorial Day yet. We have a few days to go. But still. It’s that time of year.
The whole concept of Memorial Day is designed to make us reflect. To make us remember.
Remember those who we’ve lost. Remember those who sacrificed themselves so we can be free. Remember those we have loved. Remember those who we never knew, but were instrumental in our being here today.
As a kid, the family would make three stops every Memorial Day. Three cemetaries in two cities. Our first stop, after picking up my Nana, would be to drive out to St. George’s Cemetary in Kenosha to visit the graves of my dad’s family– his grandfather, aunts and uncles on his mother’s side (my Nana). I remember one very vividly because it was an aunt who died very young. They had attached a photograph of her to the headstone.
Since my Nanu’s family was all in Italy or Canada… these were all my Nana’s relatives. So the last names were all Scarlato and Savaglio. Good old Italian names. All were family that I never knew.
We’d plant the usual assortment of Geraniums, Petunias and Agerateum near the stones and walk to the water pump, where my sister and I would take turns filling up the watering cans. After the flowers were watered and the mess cleaned up, we’d say a short prayer and be off to the next set of graves.
The next stop was All Saints Cemetary, where, at the time, just my Nanu was buried. All Saints was a fairly new cemetary when he died in 1969. It was one of those where you didn’t plant anything, you just pulled up this magical urn from the ground, filled it with water, and put cut flowers inside. Even as a child this seemed rather impractical and cold to me, but those were the rules and that’s what we did. Even the gravestones were ordinary– all were flat, recessed into the grass, almost hidden from view. Of course, there were variations in design and color, but there were no monuments, no crosses, no large messages. Just a name, a birth date, and a date of death.
Back then, Nanu’s grave was a lonely oasis among the others around him. As the years went by, neighbors began to appear around him. But there were always two spots next to him that remained open. These, I was told, were for Nana and my Uncle John, the priest, for when they died. I didn’t like to think about that, but I always remembered.
Nana took her place next to Nanu in 1992. When they laid her stone, my Uncle laid his as well. It always struck me as slightly odd, and creepy, when people would pre-lay their gravestones; showing the birth year, but leaving that square of untouched, polished granite where the year of death would be engraved when it happens. It seems so pre-meditated. Expected.
After dropping Nana back at home, the last stop would usually mean and driving out to Antioch, IL to pick up Grandma and make our way to Hillside Cemetary to visit my mom’s family. Hillside was like St. George’s – large monuments and headstones, and we could plant whatever we wanted. For years we did the same as Kenosha, and brought the Geraniums and other annual assortments. But one year we decided that since my parents were rose growers, we would plant an old garden between Grandpa’s stone and where Grandma’s would go. The rose we planted was called Therese Bugnet, a pink, very fragrant rose that grew vigorously all by itself– no excess watering or pruning needed. It seemed like the perfect idea. We still planted flowers at my mom’s aunts’ and uncles’ graves, as well as her grandparents.
I always liked Grandpa’s marker because it wasn’t granite or some obnoxious monument. It was a simple, tasteful marker with a concrete base and a brass plate. Mom said it was a military style marker, since Grandpa had served in WW II. Over time the brass aged to a beautiful green and purple patina, with the letters and numbers retaining some aspect of the brass color.
When Grandma died in 1985, we placed the exact same style marker on her grave. When it was new, it was bright and shiny and would gleam in the sun. But as the years passed, it, too, developed the patina that matched Grandpa’s.
It’s been a few years since we’ve been to the graves. With my parents’ failing health and everything going on at once in all of our lives, it just isn’t easy to make the trips anymore. Uncle John still cares for the Kenosha graves, but nobody has been out to Antioch in a few years.
Last week, after our Chorus retreat ended, I decided to surprise my parents with a visit. Delavan is only about an hour west of Kenosha, and I had to pass through Kenosha to get back to Chicago. It just made sense– I was in the area anyway. They were so happy to see me, and my surprise was much appreciated. I was so glad I did it.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day, so I went out in the yard behind the garage and cut some lilacs and picked a huge bouquet of lily-of-the-valley for my mom. Because of their location, mom can’t appreciate them as much as she would like to because it’s too hard for her to walk back there. So each year I try to make it home in time so I can bring them to her. Soon the house was filled with fragrances from fresh-cut flowers.
We talked about Memorial Day and how she would like to visit the graves in Antioch this year. So I think I’m going to drive her out there on Sunday. We’re curious to see if the rose is even still alive. Even if it isn’t, it’ll be good to visit with Grandma and her family again.
So this year, instead of partying it up, hitting the bars, going away for camping excursions, or visiting the leather mart at IML (International Mister Leather, which occurs in Chicago this weekend), I am going to pay tribute to my family. I’m going to remember those who are still with me, such as my baby cousin Taylor, whose first birthday will be celebrated on Saturday; and think about and remember those who have left us.
Perhaps that’s something we should do every day, rather than just one weekend a year. But in the grand scheme of things, once a year is better than never at all.
Happy Memorial Day to you all. I hope you spend it with someone you love.
I know I will.