The rain had stopped, the sky was overcast and the temperature was cool and springlike yesterday when Anthony Smith, 55, bent over and started trimming the wild grass around the gray marble stone that marked his mother's grave.
Birds standing on the limbs of nearby trees sang cheerfully as the squeaky shears in Smith's large, taut hands sliced through the weeds.
Smith, now gray-haired, was a lanky teen-ager when his mother, Edith M. Smith, died in 1944. He vaguely remembers the funeral, but for "many, many" Memorial Days, he said, he has returned to her grave, at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Northeast Washington, to pray and reminisce.
Memorial Day was declared a holiday in most states in 1868 as a time to honor "comrades who died in defense of their country." After World War I, many people started a tradition of visiting family and friends whose deaths were not military-related.
Yesterday, the tradition was in full bloom as several thousand District residents strewed with flowers the graves of their loved ones.
John Maloney, a retired Navy captain who visited 12 grave-sites at three cemeteries yesterday, said, "This is a day to remember your dead regardless if they were in the military or not. Ever since I was a boy, we've always gone to the cemetery on Memorial Day."
Smith and his sister, Martha Smith, visited their mother yesterday. Wearing a dark blue skirt and matching jacket, Martha Smith stood by as he clipped grass and brushed off the small rectangular headstone with a whisk broom. "My mother was just a fine lady, a woman of action instead of words," Smith said, smiling. Born in the District on June 22, 1896, his mother married and became a busy homemaker, raising five children in a house at 510 Rhode Island Ave. NW, he said.
Martha Smith, 61, gazed solemnly at the grave, located in the far southeast corner of the cemetery, and said softly, "Her message to her children was 'Keep going.' And that's what we do. We keep going and we remember her."
John Maloney and his wife, Mary, unexpectedly met a few cousins at a cluster of graves in historic Congressional Cemetery, where several of their family members are buried, including his maternal grandparents and her parents and great-grandparents.
"The deceased brought us together for a brief reunion today. We just happened to meet here at the same time," said Mary Maloney, a homemaker whose white sneakers were muddied from walking through damp graveyards all day yesterday.
As with many other graveside visitors, the Maloneys, of District Heights, saw yesterday as a day of joyful remembrances rather than painful ones--a day to bring the cemeteries to life with beautiful flowers.
"I felt a little sadness at the time that various family members departed, but time has taken care of that."
Rows upon rows of statues, obelisks and marble headstones give cemeteries an intimidating, hallowed aura. But there was a time when cemeteries were considered parks, according to an administrator at Congressional Cemetery, located at 1801 E St. SE, behind the D.C. jail.
"During the 19th century Victorian Age, cemeteries used to be social places," said Sharon Lewis. "They were parks in which people were buried and days like today were not necessarily somber, morose times. There were picnics with lemonade, hot dogs and popcorn. There were live bands. It was a time to visit and stroll."
Lewis said the privately owned cemetery received a $300,000 grant from Congress recently for the preservation of the 176-year-old graveyard.
Lewis said that with the money, the curators have "aimed at getting back to that Victorian idea. It will become again a parklike setting."