Remembering Decoration Day

 I figure the peonies are blooming this week in Missouri. As a young kid on a farm in the northern part of the state, I remember the row of peonies that would spring up this time of year in back of our three-room tar-paper house.

They were just in time, too, because my mother would be out with her knife, cutting them Decoration Day morning. We couldn’t afford store-bought flowers, but the peonies always seemed to bloom when she needed them.

After cutting her flowers, Mom would gather Mason jars and a jug of water, and the family would head down the narrow gravel roads to Big Creek Cemetery.

There wasn’t much there as country cemeteries go, not even a church—just a grassy spot where there had been one many years before. A gravel path, wide enough for one car, made a not-very-round circle through the pasture.

My mother had her ritual. We stopped by a small gravestone, only about two-feet square. My father would pull any weeds or grass at the edge of the stone and carve out a small hole with his pocketknife for my mother’s jar of flowers.

She usually cried as she placed the flowers; it was the grave of Mary Maxine Mitchell, her first child, who would have been my older sister. She died within days of birth.

From there, on she went to several other relatives’ graves. When she was through, she always would have leftover flowers and an extra jar. They were for the graves of a couple who had lived on a neighboring farm. Hers would be their only flowers. “They don’t have anybody,” she used to say.

In our family, Decoration Day never was much about honoring the war dead because the family had been spared. Some of the graves in the cemetery had small flags, but mostly the cemetery was alive with the color of fresh flowers. In two weeks, though, they all would be gone; they were in the way of the mowers.

I was thinking about Decoration Day Monday as I was making waffles and my wife, Jenny, was cooking sausage, a treat our high-school junior, Joe, had asked for in honor of the holiday. Later in the day we would barbecue some chicken on the grill.

There was no mention of visiting a cemetery. But we did watch a few minutes of CNN’s coverage of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery.

None of our relatives, living or dead, are within reasonable driving distance. Hopefully, my sister Donna stopped by our parents’ graves in the suburbs of Kansas City. Mom died four years ago; dad preceded her by three years.

These days, the tradition of placing flowers on Decoration Day has pretty much passed. It’s always Decoration Day in our cemeteries. The arrival of silk and plastic flowers and permanent holders means we don’t have to have a special day to decorate our loved ones’ graves.

I sometimes wonder, though, now that my mother is gone, if anyone ever sees the small stone in Big Creek Cemetery way up in northern Missouri, and leaves a flower for Mary Maxine, as my mother always did for the neighbors.

Maybe, someone has noticed that she doesn’t “have anybody.”

About Chris Elkins

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