Popular Posts

Monday, May 9, 2011


“Memorial Days of Old”

With Memorial Day approaching soon, I couldn’t help but think back to days when I was little and what my family always did. From a baby boomer’s point of view, it certainly is no way like Memorial Day of now---picnics, the opening of pools and the like: it was far different. There were parades to honor soldiers of old and then and there was the unwritten code that every family member had to go to every single cemetery where a loved one was buried.

Every Memorial Day when I was little, it was always so hot that if you took off your shoes and stepped on the sidewalk, you’d blister your feet. My parents and I would meet at my grandmother’s house where we would find my aunt, uncle and my two cousins ready for the long, long day ahead of us.

I’m not sure if it were my dad or my uncle who had the job of putting the push lawnmower in his trunk but somehow it got in one of them.

It must have been a sight to look back at the scene of kids and grownups scrambling to pick backyard roses and flowers and put them into watered tea towels so they would survive the day’s trek. Someone grabbed sickles and some grabbed glass jars in which water would be filled at the cemeteries we were going to visit.

Two cars were loaded and the windows were rolled down—there wasn’t air conditioning then. The heat just plain took your breath away and you weren’t sure you were going to ever get it back----even if you held you head out the window, it was like a blast furnace. Kids were stuck in the back with the big glass jars that rolled around on our feet and had to hold the prickly and wet roses and flowers. In other words, it was just plain awful. Adults got to wear shoes. Kids had to wear sandals. I was always the one who got stung by a bee or got weeds stuck in my sandals or tumbled over rocks once we got to the cemetery.

Our first stop back then was Spring Hill Cemetery. I remember big iron gates and it reminded me of something out of a weird fairy tale ---for it led to something creepy is what I knew.

Once we got there, it was a scattering of cutting grass and weeds, filling water jugs from the water spigots that were already there and then placing the flowers on graves. My cousins and I would wander off but not too far…for we would hear someone scream for us to come back. Then everyone had to help put everything back into the cars and get ready for the next journey. By then the pungent smell of honeysuckle was beginning to overtake me into a zombie state.

Then it was on to Teay’s cemetery where my maternal grandmother’s mother and relatives were buried. Seemed like it took weeks to get past St. Albans after the trip from Spring Hill Cemetery. And it sure was getting hotter by the minute.

The same routine took place as before: cutting grass and weeds, watering the flowers and placing them on relatives graves. I can remember my grandmother telling me stories about her mother and her uncles but I only took it in briefly: it was just plain too hot and my clothes were stuck to me like glue. And I couldn’t think at all.

There was no place to stop and eat; in fact, I don’t remember eating anything all day long.

Looking back, I don’t know why my grandfather didn’t go with us: he probably couldn’t take the heat or being jammed in a car.

This custom went on for years and years. After my grandfather died, we added Sunset cemetery to our yearly ritual and when my grandmother died, we went to Cunningham cemetery. It took me a long time to realize that she had wanted my step-grandfather buried beside his first wife….which to this day is still miraculous to me [I wouldn’t have shared her view at all!]

She had wanted to be buried in Cunningham cemetery because first of all it was named for her family[ her grandmother was Mary Cunningham] and second of all, she wanted to be buried beside her youngest sibling….her brother.

As an adult, my then husband, my mom and my two sons would make the yearly ritual to all of the above places. As always it was the hottest day of the year and as always, my clothes stuck to me. But we didn’t take a push lawnmower: we did take sickles and picked up flowers from the florist---that were already in water. What a relief that was! And some years we would meet my aunt, uncle and cousins but as time went on, I lost my aunt and it seemed that it became a spattering of going only to certain cemeteries.

My mother is gone and it is now left up to me to see that flowers are placed on loved ones graves. There is no way that I could handle what I did as a kid, a young adult or even twenty years ago. My grown sons will have to pick up the ritual, hopefully. But I will never ever forget those Memorial Days of old when it was honoring family that mattered: it wasn’t picnics or a bunch of hoopla. It was what had to be done and we did it….even if meant getting up early, all that hard work, burning up driving all over the Kanawha Valley and coming home at dark. It gave us a sense of who we were and what was expected of us: not demanded but dutifully done---hot or not!

Sherry Hill
*Above story published in the WVGazette


  1. Wow, Sherry! What you wrote about sounded like the Memorial Day Olympics. I also remember gravesite activities on MD back then, but my close family members did it differently. They usually chose just one graveyard - closeby or far. I never knew exactly how or why - some sort of lottery system, maybe. At that cemetery, they visited several different graves and cleaned up and left flowers at each one. Yes, the weather was hot, but my sister, my cousins, and I enjoyed running around and didn't pay too much attention to the more detailed MD rituals. Another happy event was a stop at some relative's house for a big family reunion and lots of picnic food. I guess the exact rituals were - and are - not what counts on MD. It's the chance to remember our dear departed ones and to feel close to living kin.

  2. It was the olympics! The only reason I can think of visiting all those cemeteries was that my grandmother was the oldest of the five--your grandfather, her brother, was in the middle. And she felt that it fell upon her to go to all of those places. Like you, I remember playing but the heat just about killed me. Don't remember eating anything ever after these journeys till much later on--and that was at my house. You're so right in that even done differently, MD is to celebrate fallen soldiers or those living and our deceased relatives and friends.