Originally printed in The Spokesman-Review May 28, 2008
Growing up in the house where I lived with my grandparents, this day was called “Decoration Day.”
Each year, with my grandfather behind the wheel, they would drive my grandmother’s mother to a small cemetery in the little community where my family once lived.
My great-grandmother was a tiny woman, stooped and soft-spoken. She had white, tightly-permed hair and wore thick glasses to correct her poor vision.
When she could no longer live alone in her tiny apartment, with a Bible, the stack of afghans she crocheted, an album of faded photographs, three or four practical dresses and one “Sunday” dress for funerals and weddings hanging in her closet, she moved into a place on a son’s property. When he died, she moved in with my grandmother – her last living child.
Her life could have rivaled any “Oprah” book club pick. Born poor in a mining village in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, she’d been courted and won by Doc McConnell, a coal miner who was older than she. Theirs was a famous love story in that little town.
They married and seven children came along before he succumbed to black lung disease. She survived two house fires in her lifetime, losing everything twice.
Her own strength and good health didn’t pass down to her children. When she died at the age of 102, she had outlived them all and many of her grandchildren.
Neither my grandmother nor my great-grandmother could drive. So one Decoration Day, in my grandfather’s absence, the chore fell to me.
I wasn’t thrilled about it. When you’re 18 years old, you don’t want to drive two old women around a country cemetery when you could be at the mall or at a friend’s house or anywhere but on a dirt road surrounded by weathered tombstones, some so old they were crooked and tilted toward the graves they marked.
I piloted my grandfather’s station wagon through the old graveyard until we reached the McConnell family plot and parked in the shade of a massive oak tree.
My grandmother and great-grandmother pulled out of the car a big box of glass vases they’d spent the day before filling with artificial roses and carnations. I carried the box for them as we moved from grave to grave.
“Who is this?” I would ask, looking at the name carved into the stone.
They would answer as they pulled weeds and placed the flowers, propping the vases with stones so they wouldn’t fall over.
There was the sister who’d succumbed to a “fever.” The uncle who had died in an accident. The babies, guarded by gray stone angels, who’d only lived a day or a month or a few years. One by one I was introduced to my ancestors.
We came to the last grave. My great-grandfather’s grave. My great-grandmother put the flowers on the green grass and swept away the leaves that had fallen in the autumn wind and blown against the mossy stone. She been only in her 30s when he died, leaving her with nothing but children.
“Mama ‘Connell,” I asked, “Why on earth didn’t you get married again to get some help with your family?”
“Because,” she replied, turning to give me a long look, “I never loved any man but Doc.”
I looked at my great-grandmother, a true survivor who lived through more hard times than most of us will ever know; a woman who fell in love and stayed there for three-quarters of a century, as she dusted the red clay dirt off her hands and walked away.
Love. I hadn’t thought about that. It never occurred to me as we moved from grave to grave that it was love and respect and a sense of responsibility that had brought us there.
They’re all gone now. My mother, my grandparents and my great-grandparents – people my children never met but who are as real to me as the distant relatives we talked about that hot Memorial Day years ago – are all buried 2,500 miles away. All I can do on this Memorial Day is gather a bouquet of memories and bind it with love and respect.
And in that way, even those who are long gone, having lived and loved and finally faded away, are never forgotten.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org