May 24, 2019

Memorial Day

May 25, 2019

Memorial Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. I suppose it’s the genealogist in me that appreciates a holiday that celebrates ancestors, but even when I was a child, I loved Decoration Day, as we called it then.  School had always finished just a few days earlier, and Memorial Day marked the official start of summer – a stretch of leisurely, always sunny days that stretched out forever in my imagination.


In those days, the cemetery where most of my relatives were buried was an unwatered, unweeded, hillside, so the weekend before Decoration Day, our family always went to the cemetery to clean up the plots.  While the adults worked on chopping out the cheat grass from the year before and raking and smoothing out the gravesites, we children ran around and read the headstones.  All of us had our favorite stones, and we picked the yellow roses that grew wild throughout the cemetery to place on those graves.  My own favorites included a headstone that was inscribed in memory of a young man who’d drowned in the Weber River and an old-fashioned wooden headboard and footboard, which had worn to the point that it was illegible. I always scratched my arms and legs trying to get the higher, larger roses from the huge, unpruned bushes to put on those gravesites. My sister and I also loved to put flowers on the graves of babies and small children, none of whom we’d ever known or even heard of, but we sighed over the sadness of their early deaths anyway.


Early on the morning of Memorial Day, my dad and my grandfather walked out with my siblings and I onto the unfarmed sagebrush hills that surrounded our fields to find wildflowers. My grandfather’s favorite flowers were the wild, single pink roses that grew along the irrigation ditches, and my dad loved what we called bluebells that I later learned were actually tall blue penstemons.  In addition, there were wild lupines in purple and white and many other unnamed yellow and white flowers.  Some years, we even drove to a spring on the side of the mountain where ferns grew in the damp ground. Back at the house, we picked whatever garden flowers that were in bloom such as peonies, snowballs and the purple irises that we called flags. We mixed them all together in bouquets and put them in old canning jars to take to the cemetery.


In the very earliest years I remember, we decorated the graves of my great grandparents, who’d died long before I was ever born, and my grandfather’s first wife, Mary, who’d died young and had had no children. None of us had ever known her except my grandfather, but all of us referred to her as “Aunt Polly,” and her grave always got the best bouquets. Later, after my grandparents had passed away, the decorating of the graves was always the occasion for reminiscing about them, and we never failed to make sure that Grandpa’s grave had a jar of wild roses on it.  On Memorial Day morning, cousins and aunts and uncles all came to the cemetery with their flowers, and it was a sort of family reunion since we seldom saw some of the more distant cousins otherwise. Around lunchtime, a bunch of us headed to my grandparents’ house where we built a bonfire and roasted hot dogs.


When I grew up and moved away from Utah, I seldom was able to be in Utah on Memorial Day, but two years ago, I spent the holiday there.  My grandparents, parents and a sibling all now rest at that same cemetery, and the hillsides where we picked wildflowers are part of a housing development where manicured lawns have replaced the sagebrush. The wild yellow roses from the cemetery are also gone, and the cheat grass has been replaced by irrigated bluegrass, but my siblings, nieces and nephews and cousins still converged on the cemetery on Memorial Day morning. We still stood around in the shade and reminisced about the family members buried there, and later anyone who wanted met up for a picnic at a local park. This year I won’t be able to be in Utah for Memorial Day, but I’ll be thinking about my family, those who are gone before and those who are still here, and I’ll be remembering all of those Decoration Days from so long ago and wishing that I were there at the hillside cemetery to leave bouquets and share memories with my family.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large