Memorial Day was designed to remember and celebrate the soldiers who died fighting for our rights; whether in the Civil War, the Vietnam War, World War I or II, the Gulf War, the Iraqi War…all the wars…all the soldiers…
It means something entirely different to me. Growing up in Kentucky, Memorial Day meant that family from Ohio and Tennessee and sometimes Indiana would be arriving at our house. When those out-of-towner horns beeped, “We’re here!” we would bolt outside to wait on the porch until the cars stopped, unloading Aunts and Uncles and Cousins and 2nd Cousins and Great Aunts.
In the house on Greenup Avenue, where I spent most of my childhood, we had a big lot. Or rather, my grandmother had a big lot since she owned it. Back in the old days (the real old days), a gas station must have sat on the property, in the ‘black section’ of town down by the flood wall near the river; so our corner lot had a house, a gravel driveway with a car port that stopped alongside the house, another driveway that cut across the corner lot as an ‘in’ and out’ for the old gas station traffic and the old store which we now called ‘the outhouse’. That’s where Dad stored the lawn mower, the tools and was his manly hangout away from 5 women. It was my fantasy to grow up and make that one room dilapidated storeroom into a my first home away from home, fit for a teen.
So, cars had plenty of places to park. By the end of the morning, our driveways would be filled with six or seven cars. And those were the people who drove from out-of-town. Aunt Biddy and Aunt Patty and Georgie (my grandmother) only lived blocks away from my childhood home, so we saw them all the time.
That Monday morning, for me, was spent in the yard, cutting fresh roses from our rose bushes, pricking my fingers with thorns and trying to avoid the roses with ants all over them while dodging the bees that hovered nearby and, at the same time, trying to cut stems appropriately long enough to fit into the canisters my Mom used for homemade flower arranged for the graves of our dead relatives.
With everybody eventually gathered, that meant it must be time to argue! Who’s riding with who? What is the plan? Do we have enough of those canisters that stick into the ground? Do we have enough flowers to go around? Eventually it was settled and we packed up and left in a funeral-like procession, following each other for a two-mile drive to the cemetery.
To tell the truth, I always loved the Ashland Cemetery. (Frankly, I like all cemeteries. They’re so peaceful and beautifully manicured. But I’m sure that my memories of Memorial Day are the reasons I search out cemeteries in different cities in the first place.)
Once at the cemetery, it’s time to argue some more! Argue over where the older graves are…Mammy…Mammy Nanny. (It took me a long time to figure out that Mammy and Mammy Nanny were two different people.) And John Jr.…My mom’s brother who died in infancy of lockjaw. And another brother, George…who was killed at 17 in a hit and run accident; the grandfather I never met. Many of these people I never knew, yet heard stories throughout my life. Maybe that’s why I love my 1960’s art deco kitchen table that was Aunt Biddy’s. There are stories etched into the formica and I feel them, if not know them.
Placing canisters on the graves, helping the older people up and down the hills, looking for graves year after year after year, it was a treasure hunt on a warm day.
And then, back to our house in a stream of cars ready to COOK OUT! Barbecuing meant my dad soaking the briquettes with half a bottle of lighting fluid to get the grill going while plunking down Little Kings one after the other. Or was it Budweiser then? The fire so high, it would leap up 2 or 3 feet as my dad sprayed more lighting fluid on it. Once, he put so much lighting fluid on the briquettes that when he lit it, the fire singed his eyebrows off. Now damn it, that’s a fire!
The men outside talking about whatever men talk about outside.
The women, inside, talking about stuff while finishing the potato salad, baked beans, and probably some homemade pies from Georgie.
Hanging by the side of the dining room chairs, watching them play gin rummy, spades, tonk – until time to pack up and drive back home.
Oh, yes, I remember.