Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Decoration Day" Memories

Back in the days of my childhood, we called it "Decoration Day". It was first enacted just after the Civil War to honor the dead Union soldiers, but after WWI, it became a federal holiday to honor all of our nation's war dead. In those days it was always on May 30th, and, as it is now, it was the kickoff for Summer. Our school year usually began the day after Labor Day, and ended just before Memorial Day. Neighborhood swimming pools opened on Memorial Day. There were parades, picnics, family reunions, and the obligatory trips to the various cemeteries where the remains of our loved ones were interred.

With our family, the Memorial Day activities each year were variations on the same theme. Wreaths and other floral arrangements were purchased a day or so in advance. The flowers were then loaded in the large trunk of the family car, along with a large cooler and picnic lunch. Mom and Dad would load the three of us in the vehicle and we were off on the trip south to Logan County, WV. Narrow State Route 10 was so crooked and winding, and the holiday traffic was so heavy that the 69 mile trip took nearly an hour and a half to complete. On Memorial Day, the road was heavily populated with vehicles bearing license plates from Ohio and Michigan. Most everyone tried to "get home" for Decoration Day.

Our first stop was always at my maternal grandparent's home in Holden. Papaw Stidham's wreaths were always more elaborate than the ones we had purchased for the day. Decoration Day was a big deal to him. He and Mamaw were already prepared to head out as soon as we arrived. She already had enough chicken fried to feed the whole family later in the day.

Next stop was just down the road at Valley View where my Uncle Bob, Aunt Irene and their family joined in the procession as we headed for the cemetery nestled on the hillside overlooking a community called Chauncey. At the Chauncey Cemetery, some of the family plots were surrounded by small fences, some were open. Ours was of the fenced variety. It enclosed the graves of my mother's younger sister, Hessie, and her baby brother, Buddy. My great grandmother (Hester Waybright) was also buried there, as were some other assorted cousins, etc. Even after more than 50 years I remember the routine vividly.

Papaw was director of logistics for the first two cemetery visits. The wreaths were unloaded from the respective car trunks. We kids were given floral arrangements to carry. The adults carried flowers and implements to cut the grass and weeds that had overgrown the plot since the last Decoration Day. Once we had climbed the fairly steep grade the work began as Dad and Uncle Bob would swing the primitive version of today's weed eaters. Mom and Mamaw knelt by the grave sites of their loved ones, pulling weeds with their gloved hands, and gathering up the old weathered wreaths from the previous year's visit. Then they helped Papaw gently place the floral wreaths in just the right spots. We kids would eventually get ancy to move on by the time the brush clearing was done. Before leaving, Mom would stand quietly with her arm around Mamaw's shoulders as she stood by the graves of her children, gently dabbing away tears with a Kleenex.

From Chauncey, the caravan moved on to a more remote spot on the other side of Logan. This cemetery was located off Rt. 119 on the road toward Blair Mountain. Papaw called the place "Foley" and Mamaw referred to it as "Sunbeam". Either way, it really wasn't near a town or community at all. The cars were parked along side of the road, and each of us took up our load to carry to the next grave sites. We walked across a rail road trestle and along the tracks for what seemed like a mile or so. (It probably wasn't, but it seemed that way to we kids!) At a certain spot (which I could never remember) Papaw indicated the place where we left the railroad tracks and began to climb the steep hill along a very faint foot path. By Foley's standards, Chauncey was a well kept "memorial park". This place was simply a set of ancient graves in a heavily wooded hillside. This is where Papaw's parents were buried, and the grave markers were plain stones with names and dates non professionally chiseled in.

After the routine was repeated, we made our trek back to the cars, which we had left parked along the highway. The next order of business was our picnic lunch. The food was good, the bottles of strawberry, orange and grape soft drinks were cold, and it was always great to play with our cousins.

As the afternoon wound down, we said our goodbyes and our little family headed back north toward Huntington, but not before making a stop at one more cemetery. This was the growing Forest Lawn Cemetery at Peck's Mill. Well maintained and immaculately manicured, it stood as a major contrast to the old graveyards at Chauncey and Sunbeam. Forest Lawn was where Dad's parents were buried. The final flowers were removed from the trunk and placed lovingly by the Adkins tombstone. After a brief time of reflection, it was back in the car and headed for home. There would be one more old country graveyard to visit (where Dad's grandparents and some of his deceased siblings were buried), but that would come on a separate trip to the old Adkins home place on the second Sunday in June.

The memories are still vivid, but it seems that those days were ages ago. Indeed, it was a different time, and things have changed.

Mom, Dad, and Aunt Irene are the only ones of the adults who will be in Logan this Memorial Day. Mom and Dad are in their eighties and Irene is not far behind. Dad gets around a little more slowly on his cane. Mom is unaware of the upcoming holiday, and Irene has faced some serious health issues, herself. Our cousins are scattered from Ohio to Georgia to Kentucky and Texas.

When the holiday rolls around on Monday, my brother Bruce will take Mom and Dad to Logan. They'll visit Irene and Dad's only surviving aunt. They'll stop by Chauncey Cemetery, where Bruce will climb the hill and do some weed eating around the old graves. Dad will supervise from afar, and Mom will just want to go home. On their way home, they'll make the stop at Forest Lawn, where all four of my grandparents are now buried.

I'll be on a plane headed for New Orleans about that time. I would like to be with them, but instead will have two hours of travel time, alone with my memories of Memorial Days past. I may dab away a tear or two myself.


Anonymous said...

Thanks CJ,
This certainly brings back some great memories of times with the cousins!


C.J. Adkins said...

Wish I could have been there with you guys this year. Would love to see you all again. Hope your mom is doing well. We were surely blessed to be born into the family we share!

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading your post. I think a lot about those special memories the "Stidham" family has made over the years. We really had a great childhood and I miss those times. We really enjoyed visiting with your Mom; Dad; and Bruce, eating the talking of old times. Wish you could have been there too.