Friday, May 28, 2010

Memorial Day

The ritual was one that she had performed since childhood--filling the car with whatever flowers happened to be blooming in the yard on Memorial Day,"Decoration Day," weekend. She wasn't sure why she still did it--all the other relatives who cared were long gone, but, then again, maybe that WAS why she did it. Driving up the rutted gravel road to the old cemetery brought back childhood memories.

Most of my father's relatives were dead before I was born, and they were held in greater esteem than any of the living relatives. My great-aunt was adamant that we know that these dead people had lived greater lives than we could ever hope to, and in a time that was much greater, simpler and harder than ours. The family matriarchy was the dominion of the iron-fisted, acerbic sisters, my grandmother and great-aunt Nellie, her younger-by-only-two-years sister. From the time I was about four, several times a year, but most importantly on "Decoration Day," they would load their gardening tools, my cousin and I into the old Buick and head to the Oddfellows Cemetery to tend the family plot.

We would wander through the cemetery for a while, but eventually our attention would be called away from our morbid grave games to pay our respects to the dead relatives. The would come the stories. Detailed, sometimes vivid descriptions about how each of these people came to be here that fascinated me and horrified my cousin. She didn't do well with things like that. While I thrived on hearing the stories like the one about my grandmother's brother Ralph, who, it was told, had an operation and died from the ether. My poor cousin would turn pale and rush to the car, escaping into the safety of the backseat. Ether, I was told, is what they used to knock you out so that the operation didn't hurt. I imagined that operations took place somewhere like the Frankenstein's labratory I had seen in the movies. While my grandmother told these stories in her matter-of-fact manner, my great-aunt seemed amused and almost delighted in seeing us squirm.

The trips were never described as "going to the cemetery," but as "going to see Mama and Papa," or "going to visit Ralph and Ester." No one in the family questioned it, or seemed to think it was the least bit odd that we going to see dead people. Sometimes the sisters spoke to them, filling them with the latest family news and gossip. Although I never asked either of them about death, my sense of death, as a child, was htat it was a temporary situation, and that, in time, they would get over it.

My peculiar sense of the dead continued at home. Home was my grandmother's house where I lived with her and my father. A big old house that had once held four apartments; we lived mostly downstairs in the space that had once been two of those apartments. When I would ask my grandmother about my grandfather and my father's little sister, she would tell me that they were with the man upstairs. I thought she meant upstairs in the unused apartment, so I sneaked up the stairs to look for them. I could use someone to play with. I wasn't supposed to be up there, and when she caught me, my explanations were met with silence. I thought it was pretty neat that we kept dead people in our upstairs and I told all the kids in my kindergarten class about them.

In another part of the house, my father had mounted the head and horns of a deer over the doorway. Unfortunately it was between me and the bathroom. I just knew that the deer wasn't really dead, but just marking time on our wall, and that it might come back to life just as I walked under it. After I had peed my pants a couple of times, someone figured out that I was afraid of the deer and took it down.

Many years later, when I was a young bride, the news came that my father had died. I went to his house, my grandmother's house where I had grown up and before anyone else arrived, I checked the apartment upstairs, just in case.

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