IN THE LATE 1860s, a tradition of decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers began. In 1868, General John Logan formalized the tradition by declaring May 30 as Decoration Day. Decoration Day gradually become known as Memorial Day, and after World War I, Memorial Day began to commemorate soldiers who had died in any war. In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, and in 1971, Memorial Day was established as the last Monday in May.
Although the emphasis of Memorial Day is still to honor those who died in service to their country, graves of all loved ones are now traditionally decorated on Memorial Day.
It’s an old man’s game. You seldom see anyone under 50 in the cemetery cleaning the headstones, replacing old, faded flowers with fresh ones. Our loved ones aren’t there anyway. We know that. But we’ll honor them as long as we can, until strangers come along and take photographs and wonder who they were.
Every year about this time we go to the cemeteries and clean the graves of those who have gone before. It makes you realize how fast time flies. Has it really been that long? And then there are all those forgotten graves. What was their story? Maybe this.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. up the steep gravel road, through the woods to the clearing where the old grey headstones were covered in moss and leaned toward the earth as if they were too tired to stand up straight, for so long they had stood in testament to the forgotten lives of those whose names were were worn from the stone by the unrelenting and unforgiving passage of time.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. because there were snakes and yellow jackets and maybe bears. and at night across the hollows voices and laughter and music and now and then a gunshot would echo from neighbors unknown, and though the graveyard was close it was no place for a young girl alone.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but along with the grey, rough tablets of ancient men and their wives and their children, were smooth slabs of curved and polished marble with praying hands and crosses and Bible verses written in script, and names her grandmother knew of this cousin and that uncle, and her grandmother’s husband, the grandfather she had never known.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. under the deep shade cast by towering oaks and maples where grass wouldn’t grow and moss and lichens clung easily to the old stones and left her grandfather’s headstone untouched by nature, save for the pollen in the spring that she would wipe with her finger from the smooth marble, that also promised that her grandmother would someday rest with him.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but her grandmother worried too much. she had never seen a snake and stayed clear of the bees and the idea of bears just seemed silly, and it was peaceful always peaceful. and she would talk to God and ask why other kids teased her, though she knew it was because her clothes were old and she was poor.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and she sat beside the grandfather she knew only from photographs, and read Psalms from his old Bible and drew wisdom from the words that would stay with her all of her days, and give her comfort through her pain, and strength through her weakness, and courage through her fears.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and when she saw him she knew her grandmother had been right, and she had been foolish, and as he came toward her he took a drink from a bottle and wiped his mouth on his sleeve and laughed, and she knew that he had come from the valley of the shadow of death.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but she would fear no evil and she always carried a staff, the old iron pipe from her grandfather’s workshop, heavy and cool, and she stood and gripped it in both hands and drew back and stepped toward him and swung, and he screamed as it struck against his ribs, and his bottle dropped, and she ran off the hill.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. she didn’t tell her grandmother and she didn’t sleep for days, and when the kids teased her because she had to tape the soles of her shoes, and because she lived in a shack with her grandmother because her mother had killed herself with a needle, she cried into her pillow softly, so her grandmother wouldn’t hear.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and it was weeks before she went back to find her staff, her grandfather’s iron pipe, which had given her comfort, and to find the peace that had left her. but it wasn’t the same. she couldn’t read she couldn’t pray she couldn’t close her eyes because he might be out there still.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and though she was afraid, she still went there by herself, because it was there she had learned of peace and strength and courage. and she would grow and live far away from the hollows, and the kids who teased her, and she would become a woman strong in her will and strong in her faith and though she was never alone she went there by herself.
copyright 2017, joseph e bird photo copyright 2017, joseph e bird
I saw Bob Foster in the coffee shop Saturday. I asked about his daughter, Julie, who graduated from our small town high school in St. Albans, WV and made it to the big time working in New York City as an architectural preservationist. But she doesn’t just sit at a desk and review historic documents. She rappels down New York skyscrapers with a camera and a hammer and inspects for deteriorating masonry. Yep, that’s a thing. She was one of the preservationists featured on the Today show recently. She’s in the group scene at the end.
Bob told us that to allay the fears of her mother, she told her that she doesn’t rappel down buildings more than 60 stories. Which, as it turns out, wasn’t exactly true. As if 90 stories is any more dangerous than 60. Click the link below to see the Today show clip.
1950s movie starlet at home for the Christmas holidays.
Could have been. She had those classic movie-star looks. She always wanted to be “discovered.” But her choice was her family. She was a stay-at-home mom. That’s what most mothers did back then. So maybe life in the limelight was not her destiny. In some ways it was a sacrifice. Still, it was her choice. Her calling was hard, sometimes wearisome, and largely unglamorous. But it was also noble and virtuous and rewarding in immeasurable ways.
She was my mother.
“Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.”