Visiting the Graves
I could always tell when a holiday was approaching. I had that "6th Sense" associated with all young children. As early in my school years as kindergarten and the first grade, my internal radar would begin pinging faintly whenever a school holiday appeared on the horizon. That Sunday in 1954 was no exception.
My radar would have been in full scan mode that day. I was in the midst of a shoot out with a gang of desperados when my grandfather emerged from the basement of the rented farm house that my mother, my younger sister, and I shared with my grandparents.
If he had emerged five minutes earlier his actions would probably have been below the horizon of my radar-screen. As it was, he nearly did manage to escape my notice. You see, my posse and I had just managed to corner Little Blackie, and his gang of black hat wearing outlaws, behind the large box elder growing in our side yard. That tree was large enough that it easily provided cover for the fleeing gang of outlaws as well as their horses. Not to mention providing year round shade for the screened in porch that ran the entire length of the western side of the house.
I had just yelled out to my posse (all wearing white ten gallon hats of course) to cover me as I was preparing to make a dash from my place of concealment behind a large bolder. Actually, it was the chopping block where my grandfather would behead the chickens -- and the occasional rooster -- that were destined to provide my family with a Sunday dinner, when my grandfather came out of the basement.
To exit our basement without going through the house, one had merely to walk up the dirt incline that rose from the floor until they could slip the wooden peg from the rusted hasp connecting the center edges of the two outer doors together. Then, if one was strong enough and unencumbered with any of the miscellany that found its home in that cool dark cellar, they could simply stretch their arms upwards, placing a hand on each door, and continue to walk up the incline until the doors opened.
BANG -- BANG!!
First one door and then the other had reached their center of balance and fallen loudly to the side. The left side door impacted noisily upon a pile of bricks that were destined to someday form a series of steps replacing the dirt ramp in the basement. While the door on the right stopped loudly against a roll of wooden slatted snow-fencing that was left over from recent renovations to the chicken run.
Hearing the sounds and immediately incorporating them into my afternoon fantasy, I spun around ready to empty my six-shooters into the yellow-belly of some new outlaw that had used the sound of gunfire to mask his sneaking up behind me. But, there, instead of some evil doing outlaw, I saw my grandfather. And, instead of a rifle or a pair of six shooters aimed at me, there were instead three 4 foot long sections of pipe in his left hand, and swinging at the end of its bail in his right hand was a large iron urn.
Turning to my posse and telling them to keep those "horse thieving cowards" pinned down until I got back, I holstered my trusty six shooters and moseyed on over to see just what my grandfather was up to. I had learned at an early age that Papa, as my sister and I and all of our cousins called him, always had time for a smile and an explanation.
After letting me play the usual 20 questions game, Papa explained that we would be "visiting the graves" next weekend and that he needed to get the urns ready. I must admit right here that "visiting the graves" was something new to me. I really didn't understand what that phrase meant. However, my imagination was more than happy to supply all sorts of images to accompany those words.
Quickly forgetting all about my posse (and the "treed polecats" still having a shoot-out with them in the side yard behind me), I walked along beside my grandfather as he made his way up the well worn dirt path leading from the rear of house to the barn. Entering through the milk house, we went past the door leading into the cow barn, and continued on into the attached tool shed.
It was a large one-roomed shed with all sorts of fascinating items hanging on the walls. As well as many mysterious items scattered at random on shelves and work-benches. My attention was caught, as always, by the large two handed scythes hanging on the left wall. Every since I first watched my grandfather and a hired-hand using them to clear an overgrown field, I had imagined myself being old enough to wield such a scythe.
My grandfather opened the rear outer door to the shed, letting in the bright sunlight. He then laid the pipes and urn on a bench and searched around for some sand-paper and an old bucket of white paint. For the next hour, I sat and watched patiently –sometimes being allowed to help—as my grandfather sanded those pipes to remove a previous coat of paint and whatever rust had appeared since their last use. Once they were cleaned to his satisfaction, we took them and the can of paint outside where I watched as he withdrew a bolt, a washer and a nut from his pocket and proceeded to make a tripod of the three poles.
I had noticed, during the sanding, that each pipe had a small hole drilled through one end; about two inches from the top of the pipe. Laying the pipes on the ground next to one another, my grandfather slipped the bolt through those holes and attached the nut and washer. Tightening them, but leaving them loose enough that the pipes could move freely around the bolts shaft, he then stood them up as a tripod and after opening the can and stirring the left over paint, he applied a thick coating of bright white paint to all three legs of the tripod
I am sure you have all heard, at one time or another, the expression "about as exciting as watching paint dry." Well, it was no different for me on that day. So, after about five minutes spent waiting to see if any paint would manage to drip off the tripod and land on one of the large carpenter ants looking for food in the dirt and grass underneath it, I wandered off in search of more entertaining activities while my grandfather continued to work on getting things ready "to visit the graves."
Finally, another week had passed and it was time for us to "visit the graves." The day had an almost festive feel to it as it wasn't all that often that so many family members would gather together, usually only for birthdays or on Thanksgiving and Christmas. My great grandmother was there as well as my aunt and uncle and my three cousins. I had managed to convince my mother that there was plenty of room for me to ride in the car with my cousins -- Four kids in a back seat wasn't an unusual sight in those days. In fact, that positioning was almost guaranteed to keep them quiet - if for no other reason then it ensured they were always within "arms reach" of one of the adults sitting in the front seat.
Off we went, station wagon in the lead. Everyone was sitting in their usual position. My mother was driving, my grandfather on the opposite side of the front seat. My grandmother and great grandmother were sitting in the back seat. Between them, a large wicker picnic basket and a carefully balanced stack of plates separated from one another by cloth napkins. My sister was sitting on my grandmother's lap looking intently out the window and asking "when will we be there?" The tripods and urns were packed carefully in the back of the wagon along side several market baskets filled with petunias and pansies. There were also several geranium plants, their bright red blossoms already opened. And, for no reason I could readily determine, two scythes were strapped to the roof.
Following closely was my uncle's car. He and my aunt in the front seat while my cousins and I sat in the rear. Butch and Sandra, being the oldest by one and two years respectively, claimed the right to sit next to a door leaving the middle for Kathy and myself. We were young enough that "straddling the hump" (as sitting center seat in an older car required) wasn't unnecessarily uncomfortable. We would just curl our legs up on the seat and bounce around as Uncle Charlie took first this and then that turn or "short-cut" in route to our destination.
After what seemed like no time at all, we turned off from the main highway and onto a dirt road. There were shade trees lining both sides of the road, on the right, the trees were evenly spaced with rusty barbed-wire stretched between them, and a tumbled down cobble-stone wall separated them from a pasture filled with pink and white clover blossoms and yellow dandelion blooms. From my position in the middle, I couldn't see much after the turn, except for trees, and so I was surprised by a loud "Oh Boy!" uttered almost simultaneously by both Butch and Sandra.
After we traveled on another quarter mile or so, my uncle slowed and pulled off the road, which was now little more than two ruts with a mound of grass and weeds separating them, to park behind the station wagon. As my cousins and I piled out of the back seat my mother and aunt yelled in unison "Don't go too far and come back for lunch when you are called!" As one, the four of us shouted "Okay" and headed off to explore, Sandra and Butch leading the way.
Almost immediately Kathy and I noticed what had excited Sandra and Butch when we were driving down the road. There was a small creek running through the pasture. It wandered aimlessly through the thick grass, its' water sparkling brightly. And, as we looked, we saw green coated rocks glistening along the banks indicating to the experienced eye that there would be frogs to chase. A small pool, in one bend of the creek, directly under a large willow tree, held a promise of somewhat deeper waters. There might even be fish! Soon, shoes and socks were removed, pant legs were rolled up and the four of us were knee deep in the sun warmed water. Any thoughts of "visiting the graves" were far from my mind.
Shortly, it was time for the picnic lunch. My grandmother and great grandmother were sitting in lawn chairs (the old wood and canvas type), my mother and my sister Bonnie were sitting on a large hand-made quilt and laid out before them were stacks of sandwiches, a pot filled with hard-boiled eggs, several containers of pickles -- both sweet and dill, and large bowls both potato and macaroni salad. Off to the side, sitting in folding chairs under a large elm tree, my grandfather and my uncle were conversing quietly and enjoying a bottle of beer that had been chilling in the creek since our arrival.
After eating lunch and finishing off a bottle of soda, also "creek cold," I was all ready to continue on to "visit the graves" and said as much to my mother. She just looked at me and smiled and said: "We are visiting the graves. Do you see the path over there, the one going into the trees behind Papa and Uncle Charlie?" "Come with me and I will show you."
Just on the far side of that stand of trees stood the remains of a fallen down house. Its' walls were all a skew and the roof had almost completely fallen in. This house, even when newly built, would have been no more than twenty feet square. Creeping vines and wild berry bushes battled for climbing rights on the weathered posts that had once supported a small front porch. Buried under a layer of berry vines and knee high weeds, that had over-grown what must have once been a front yard, lay the remains of a hand-made rocking chair. Off to the side of the old house in an area freshly cleared of deep grass and weeds, stood a weathered stone marker.
While my cousins and I had splashed in the creek and my younger sister had kept herself amused looking for pretty stones and picking wild flowers, my great grandmother, my grandmother my mother, and my Aunt Beverly had all watched quietly as my grandfather and my uncle used the two handed scythes to clear away the grass and weeds that had overgrown the area surrounding that stone marker.
The three generations of women had remained there, talking softly, as my grandfather and uncle returned to the station wagon to get one of the tripods and an urn containing freshly planted flowers. Then they all placed the tripod, its urn of flowers suspended by chain below it, next to the stone marker.
My mother knelt down beside me and pointed to that weathered marker and said softly: "That is where your great grandfather is buried. We put flowers on his grave every year in remembrance of him. Next, we are going to the graves of your great grandmother's brothers. We have flowers for them too. After that, we will go to your father's grave. I know you will want to put some flowers there as well.
Suddenly, the day no longer felt quite so festive to me. This wasn't the holiday I had imagined.
That was the first time I can remember "visiting the graves." It is entirely possible that I had heard that expression before but never really connected it with the actual event. I may even have made the trip before. But, if so, it is a memory I can not recall.
As the years passed, there were more and more graves to visit. The graves of my great-grandmother, as well as my grandmother and grandfather were soon to be added to the circuit. Then an aunt, then an uncle soon followed by three cousins. Then there was the grave of my mother. I began to notice that, in addition to the flowers, more and more graves had small American flags flying beside them. And then the visits stopped.
With the passing of those generations, it seemed that the tie with the past was broken. Perhaps we stopped visiting the graves simply because there were, all too quickly, too many to visit in a single day. Perhaps it was because our lives had become too busy, too filled with "more important things." Perhaps as we became old enough to understand our own mortality we wanted no additional reminders of how short our lives could be.
Now, more than fifty years later, I recall those days and those visits. I also recall more recent visits. I recall walking through Arlington National Cemetery with it's thousands of white crosses. I recall visiting the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and thinking of what lay beneath those placid waters. I recall standing in front of the Viet Nam Veteran's Memorial and reading the names of the fallen and looking for those I had known. I recall attending a ceremony in front of the Beirut Memorial, a testimony to those Marines killed in Lebanon – "They came in Peace" and left in flag draped coffins. And I recall watching in horror, on that fateful September 11th, as my television set displayed over and over again the ghastly images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers, the billowing smoke roiling up from the Pentagon, and that rubble strewn field in Pennsylvania.
I recall those fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq. I recall those fallen in distant battles of which we shall never hear. I recall those who sit and wait, for they also serve. I recall and silently I salute and thank each and every one of them for their sacrifices.
Where were you this Memorial Day?
Were you "visiting the graves?", or were you visiting the malls?