My grandmother always called it “Decoration Day” but every Memorial Day, when I was living at home and even long after I’d started a family, my mom, grandmother, kids and I would get into my Uncle Sonny’s big Ford Fairlane and drive to New Calvary & Mt. Hope Cemetery to decorate the graves where my grandfather, aunts, uncles and great-grandparents were buried. Along the way, we’d stop at one of the roadside vendors and buy red, pink and white geraniums in 4” pots for each grave.
It was my job to choose the best looking geraniums with the brightest color and most buds. Geraniums could take the heat, poor soil, lack of water and didn’t have to be deadheaded to keep blooming like petunias did.
As they pulled weeds and planted geraniums, My grandmother and mother would recall stories about the relatives, I’d never met. I would catch my grandmother, gently touching my grandfather’s name and getting misty-eyed as she knelt in front of the markers for her little brother, a six-year old victim of diphtheria in the early 1900’s and her father who died from TB when she was only seven years old, leaving her mother a widow with three young children to raise alone in South Boston.
My mother and uncle would remember out loud their only uncle, Tim, a blacksmith, who made them puzzles and rings from horseshoe nails and died from a broken heart when a fire swept though the stable and the draft horses that he loved were lost.
My grandmother and Uncle Sonny are gone now. Nana Ford is buried next to her beloved husband in New Calvary and Uncle Sonny rests alone in a military cemetery on Cape Cod. No one visits New Calvary or Mt. Hope Cemetery anymore. The surviving aunts and uncles, now in their 80’s and 90’s no longer drive and the next generations--first and second cousins are spread out across the country.
My mom is elderly now too, has memory problems and is unstable on her feet sometimes. We talk every year about making the trip out to New Calvary and “decorating” the graves. Years ago we would stop at the cemetery Gatehouse and my mother would look up the row numbers and street name. She’s not sure she still remembers any of them, but this year we are going again—it may be the last year we can.
We’ll bring the 4-inch geraniums in pink, white and red along with some small pebbles that we’ve collected from my mom’s house, my house and the beach where my grandparents had a summer cottage.
There is a beautiful Jewish custom of leaving small pebbles on a gravesite that inspires me to do this. It originated in ancient times when graves were marked only with piles of rocks and adding more was a way to let others know that here lies a person worth remembering.
Happy Memorial Day.