I have loved Memorial Day weekend since I was a little kid.
The annual national holiday to commemorate the sacrifices of deceased military and veterans that grew over decades to honor living military and other deceased loved ones was always one of the happiest holidays of my childhood. Dad and Mom made a big fuss about this end-of-May, beginning-of-summer holiday, and we kids tagged along for the ride—literally. Every year we spent Memorial Day mornings inside the family station wagon, riding from cemetery to cemetery to visit the graves of beloved ancestors.
Preparation began a week or two ahead of the holiday when Dad started collecting a half-dozen or more large glass or aluminum containers, such as juice or coffee cans, and we kids would then be charged with washing them. These containers would hold bouquets of fresh flowers cut from our yard—whatever was in bloom, usually iris, lilac, and peonies of various colors—that would grace each family grave we visited.
The annual Memorial Day ritual seldom varied:
On Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend, Dad, a U.S. Army veteran of World War II, would rise early and put out the American flag on our front porch, teaching us kids proper flag etiquette: no horsing around while performing this solemn task, don’t let the flag touch the ground, take in the flag when it rains, take the flag down at sunset.
Mom, who hated getting up early most days, on this day got out of bed eagerly and went out to the backyard to cut buckets of flowers for bouquets, making sure the stems were long. Then we kids helped her arrange the flowers in the glass and aluminum containers, adding enough water to keep the flowers fresh and sometimes a rock or two for added weight.
Floral arrangements completed, we’d pile in the car with Dad driving us to Spring Grove Cemetery, one of the nation’s most beautiful cemeteries. Here, he drove the winding and scenic roads of the cemetery, always knowing exactly where the family graves were located (he possessed a highly developed personal positioning system long before anyone used GPS!). His parents and much-loved aunts and uncles and sister and brother-in-law are buried in Spring Grove.
During the cemetery drive and trek across dewy cemetery grass, Dad regaled us with stories about his parents and other beloved family members, and each year, as we got older and wanted to know more about the family history, we’d pump Dad for more and more stories and ancestral tidbits.
Mom would make us stand at attention at each gravesite, and she would make the Sign of the Cross and begin praying a short prayer for each of the deceased. And she would always fill in Dad’s sparse but accurate details about family history with the “color commentary” that Dad often omitted and that we kids craved!
After Spring Grove Cemetery, we’d continue our Memorial Day pilgrimage to St. James White Oak Cemetery where Mom’s parents are buried and then to St. Mary’s Cemetery where a few beloved aunts and uncles from both my paternal and maternal sides are buried. The ritual here was repeated: climb out of car, bring container of blooms, pray at graveside, listen to stories, ask questions, maybe get answers, pile back into the car.
Thankfully, I married someone who shares my love of this annual tradition and so this Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I will climb into our sedan with containers of flowers and small U.S. flags for the veterans’ graves and trek across dewy cemetery grass to pray for and remember our loved ones at gravesites.
I still love Memorial Day weekend.
What are your Memorial Day traditions?