When I was a little girl, we called Memorial Day "Decoration Day" and it was always time for a picnic in the graveyard. We would go off to the Odd Fellows cemetery in Soquel where all the relatives were buried. It was a shady place with oak trees and garlands of vinca covering the ground, star-shaped purple blossoms among the green vining leaves. My grandmother called the vinca "myrtle." We would clean off the graves, removing weeds and putting flowers on each one. I would play among the dead relatives, and when the cleanup was done, we would sit down on blankets and eat our picnic lunch of cold fried chicken and potato salad. I remember sweet pickles and black olives and deviled eggs, too. Or maybe it was deviled egg sandwiches.
There was no sense of the macabre in the graveyard -- it was a peaceful place of rest and a picnic ground. The bodies of the dead were buried there, but there was no sense that they lingered with their bones. We offered their memories respect, but did not feel they were actually present. They had gone on. We weren't Christian -- there was no sense of them having gone to heaven, but I sensed that they had gone someplace beyond this earthly plane and only their memories remained with us. Since I was too young to have known any of them, I didn't even have a memory of them. I took my family's word for their having lived, heard their stories and read their names on weathered headstones.
Today, Memorial Day seems entirely military. I don't hear of people visiting their dead relatives unless they were soldiers. Flags fly and speeches are made. Phrases like "ultimate sacrifice" and "freedom isn't free" grace the oratory of the day. People post pictures on social media of military relatives gone on to the great parade ground in heaven. Wars are remembered, as much as those who fought in them. Sometimes old wounds are reopened. Sometimes memories of peace prevail. In today's political climate, an uneasy truce holds shakily between us and World War III. No one feels safe, exactly. These are the interesting times of the so-called Chinese curse.
I miss the old days of the picnics and peaceful graveyards. All my family of that generation is long gone. My grandmother and her sister, pictured above, are buried in Soquel with their family. My mother's and aunt's ashes are scattered, one in the Pacific ocean just off the Golden Gate, the other among the Northern California redwoods. My mother loved the ocean and it is what she wanted. She loved pelicans, and I was delighted to see the big rock off the Marin Headlands where they roost is near where my mother was scattered. She used to shiver and say "Someone's walking on my grave!" But having seen her resting place, I have to tell her, no, it was party boats full of fishermen.
I am many miles from all of them now, across the country in a southern state, nowhere near the Odd Fellows Cemetery or the Marin Headlands or the redwood forests. But I remember them today. I toast their memory and the memories of Decoration Day before it became a glorification of war. Oh, I know its origins, but it was not the same holiday that we celebrate today. Decoration Day was meant to honor those killed in our Civil War by putting flowers on their graves, and happens in May because that's when the flowers bloom.
Photo of Florence and Leota Leeper by Alice Dingerson Lovier.