Memorial to Decoration Day

Roses in CemeteryWhen I was young, Memorial Day was quite different. This was after the days when everyone walked 10 miles to school no matter what the weather, but we were still in the era of black and white TV where the test pattern came on after the 10 o’clock news. Though I now live in Flagstaff, Arizona, my recollections are from Iowa, where I grew up. Somehow, I think the way things were observed in Iowa were not much different from in Flagstaff in the 1950s.

One way in which Memorial Day was different is that every adult called it Decoration Day.  Another difference is that it was not always on Monday as part of a three day weekend. It was on May 30, no matter what day of the week that happened to be. (The change to the last Monday in May happened in 1969.)  May 30 came at a convenient time of year to take a day off in Iowa since the crops were in (meaning corn and soybeans were planted) and it was usually before the first round of hay baling (farmers tried to get three in each summer/fall in order to keep the cattle in hay during the winter).

So, everyone dressed up as though it were Sunday and got in the car and visited cemeteries. Sometimes, someone would go out to a nearby cemetery the Sunday before the actual holiday so the graves would be decorated before anyone arrived on Memorial Day – there was often a little competition about the most elaborate decoration.

In our family, Decoration Day had little to do with military honors. It was a day to remember the grandparents and others who had died by decorating their graves. By the time we finished the circuit of graveyards (first picking up an aunt and uncle or two to ride along), we may have put over 200 miles on the car at an average of 40 miles per hour on the narrow two-lane roads. We started early and got home long after dark.

Along the way, we looked forward to each cemetery to come because it meant getting out of the hot (no auto air-conditioning then!) car to run around under the shade of the big old trees surrounding the graves. We also learned a lot about our families. All the grandfathers had come directly from Germany to Iowa to claim and farm new land, and to avoid the Kaiser’s military draft. One of them had been born in New York harbor and was thus a U.S. citizen though no one else in his family was. The origin of the grandmothers was a bit less clear, but at least one of them was German since that’s the language she spoke at home. There were also a few of their children buried nearby – still-born babies and victims of life on the plains without the miracle of antibiotics. That sort of thing was much more common in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and the evidence and history lesson was evident on the ground around us on those Memorial Days.

I was off to college by the time Congress changed Memorial Day to just one of those Uniform Holidays conveniently always located on a Monday to make a nice three-day weekend. Somehow, I think we’ve lost something important to gain these mini-vacations.

©Ann Heitland 2007, then published in the Arizona Daily Sun as Coconino Voices and on Active Rain.

First Excerpt

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter One of my manuscript, a work in progress:

It was September 25, 1914; nine months to the day since Christmas. Not three months since Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off the Great War. Ma had decided that as much as Ava, 20, knew, having been to Teachers’ College and taught the Otterville School now for a year, Ava needed a lesson in birth. So, Ma had decreed that Ava would stay home when Ma started labor with me. That happened about 3 a.m.

By noon, I was born, the last of Emma and W.H.’s nine children. Eleven if you count the two sisters already dead and buried in the Otterville cemetery by then.  Ma had given off a lot of groaning and sighing, but there had been no screaming from the bedroom until Ava, sweeping herself out into the kitchen, yelled “THIS HAS GOT TO STOP,” scaring the bejesus out of Ken and Jessie. Mide came out and picked up Jessie, saying, “Kenneth, go fetch your father.”

Pa had long since taken the bread out of the oven and gone down to the barn to check that Murray and Faye had indeed milked the cows before school. Belatedly, he fed the chickens – normally Emma’s task to do or supervise. Ken ran to the barn and screeched to a halt at his father’s feet. Looking up, he said, “Baby’s here.” Without a word, Pa strode toward the house. Kenny was curious about me, but after babysitting Jessie in the corner all morning, he decided being outside on this fine fall day was the better choice than immediately satisfying that curiosity.

Because Kenny was not quite five he still had some tight restrictions. He couldn’t go near the pig pen or hog house. He wasn’t to climb on anything in the barn, or even be there really unless he was with someone. Even when there with someone, he wasn’t to go into the horses’ stalls or the cow enclosures, unless specifically invited by a responsible adult (basically, Pa or Murray). Kenny’s range really was limited to the house, the porch, the driveways and the apple orchard. He didn’t care about the chicken house – it made him sneeze. No walking to the creek or down the road toward Otterville unless he was with the older sibs. All that was fine with him, there was plenty to entertain. Today, since he was already inside the barn on a legitimate errand, he took an iron wheel hoop out from the center aisle and rolled it with a stick down the driveway toward the road. He saw Grandma Mide come out to the porch and sit in the rocker with a tall glass of water in her hand.

Mide and Nancy had left Will and Emma alone to get acquainted with me. I’ve wondered whether Emma, lying in her exhaustion after any of the eleven baby deliveries, ever had second thoughts. Whether she wished that she’d just gone away before that first one, especially since Ruth died right away. But, of course, she couldn’t have known that was going to happen. She had clearly stayed for Pa. She loved him deeply, though many of my siblings could never understand why.

© Ann Heitland 2015