A Memorial Day promise keeps the past alive and honors the dead

It may seem strange to focus on cleaning up the town cemetery when so much needs to be done in tornado-ravaged Moore, Okla., but nearly a thousand volunteers showed up this past week to work. They wanted it to look nice for the funerals that must be held for the storm’s victims.

My father and paternal grandparents are buried at Prairie Home Cemetery in Graham, Mo. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)
My father and paternal grandparents are buried at Prairie Home Cemetery in Graham, Mo. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)

It’s something I understand, though, especially during Memorial Day weekend, a time for many to decorate the graves not only of fallen soldiers but of all family members. While friends celebrate the start of summer with barbecues, baseball games and trips to the beach, I visit cemeteries, fulfilling a promise I made to my dad before he died 15 years ago and embracing the traditions with which I was raised.

An only child, my dad worried about who would decorate graves when he and my mom were gone. My brother and I had moved out of Nodaway County in northwest Missouri, both of us living across the country at various times. But I reassured my dad that I would continue the tradition of visiting the cemetery each year.

Although my mom’s alive and decorates the graves, I still pay homage to my dad and family members. Some years it’s been tough to keep my promise. My daughter was 6 years old, my son just 5 months, when Daddy died. There are times they’ve gone with me to the cemetery, and there are times I’ve made the 200-mile round trip alone during a school day, arriving back in time for the afternoon carpool pickup. I’ve had to juggle dance recitals, baseball games, end-of-school-year picnics, talent shows and award assemblies, along with sick kids and stormy weather.

But each year I’ve tried, with my box of flowers, to get there: Something in a patriotic red, white and blue for my dad.  Red for my paternal grandparents, whom I know through the stories my dad told. He said his mother liked the color red. An extra bouquet for my great-aunt and great-uncle Willa and Lee, who never had any children.

The trip brings back memories of similar trips with my dad. He’d take the back roads, driving State Highway ZZ, pointing out the farm where James and Charlotte Reese had lived. They were the pioneer ancestors who left upstate New York for the rich farmland near Skidmore, Mo. in the 1860s. The outlaw Jesse James spent the night in their barn once, so it was told. (Jesse stayed in a lot of barns, if you believe all that you hear.)

Charlotte and James Reese were pioneers in northwest Missouri. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)
James and Charlotte Reese were pioneers in northwest Missouri. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)

But it’s a time to visit with the living as well, such as my 98-year-old cousin Ruth Allen,  who tells stories of people that are just headstones to me. Charlotte Reese? Ruth can describe seeing the black, glass-walled, horse-drawn hearse that carried Charlotte’s body past her house on a cold February day in 1921. Leona Reese, my great-great-aunt and Ruth’s grandmother? She could whip up a dress for Ruth out of a couple of flour sacks, and she made the best sugar cookies ever.

As a kid, I didn’t like Decoration Day, as my maternal grandma called the holiday. It meant a long, hot car ride from our home in Maryville, Mo., before air conditioning, sometimes with foil-covered coffee cans of peonies or irises balanced on the floor between my feet, hoping none of the ants (why do they love peonies so much?) would crawl up my legs.

Once we arrived in Pattonsburg, Mo., the small town where my mother grew up, my brother and I would wander around the cemeteries, bored, while the grown-ups visited with other relatives and friends as they put flowers on the graves of people I didn’t know or hardly remembered.

On Thursday, my daughter, home from college, went with me to the cemeteries near Pattonsburg, Mo. We have five generations of grandmothers in Oak Ridge Cemetery: I took her on the “tour,” finally showing her the faded stone for her great-great-great-great-great grandmother Sarah Jane Miller Barger Dowell Hays, who survived three husbands, raised nine children and traveled from Kentucky to Missouri in a covered wagon.

My daughter reads the stone marking the grave of her great-great-great-great-great grandmother. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)
My daughter reads the stone marking the grave of her great-great-great-great-great grandmother. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)

We ran into some relatives, of course, a cousin — third, we think — in the Old Memories Cafe in ‘burg, as people refer to the town. They were there from Excelsior Springs, Mo. His wife bemoaned the fact that the peonies had not yet bloomed this year. Everything’s late, with snow in early May.

I thought of my great-grandma and how she would fuss about the peonies. Would they bloom in time? Or perhaps too early?

The tradition of decorating graves came from the years following the Civil War. It’s become a time to honor our military and recall their sacrifices, especially those who gave their lives. They deserve our respect and compassion and help now more than ever.

My dad was a Marine who served in Korea, and I think of that this weekend, and of how he died from multiple myeloma, a cancer that may have resulted from the test atomic bomb he witnessed in 1953.

Remember those who sacrificed their all Monday during the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time, established “in honor of the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.”

Take a minute from the barbecues, the baseball or the beach, and say thank you to a vet.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

 

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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