Memorial Day:My Remembrance
Memorial Day for my mother, or Decoration Day as she fondly called it, was the most important observance of the year. In my earliest recollections I see her preparations, which would sometimes last for weeks; creating elaborate sprays from assorted plastic flowers, weaving palls from sliced lengths of green trash bags to cover the desert graves where there was no grass. She would lovingly create temporary oases of color and beauty that would, for a week or two, mark the places of rest for dozens of ancestors and friends, and a child, before hands, or the wind, would sweep them away, or the sun would bake them to dust. The day prior to what was a 2 or 3 day pilgrimage to several cemeteries in Utah and Western Colorado, Mom would briefly turn her attention to the living. She would fry up what seemed like a vat of chicken. Back then each bird was squeezed free of pinfeathers, cleaned, and cut by hand. She had two cast iron frying pans full of popping hot fat to receive the flour and spice dredged pieces. And it was always perfectly cooked, never too dry, never a streak of red against the bone, delicious. Potato salad, heavy with boiled eggs and spring onions, green Jello salad, pickles, and olives rounded out her picnic meal, conscientiously made for her living and growing loved ones. The Saturday before Memorial Day Monday was reserved for the McDougall’s, Mom’s side of the family, to meet at the park in Green River, Utah. We would meet, eat, visit, and play until time came to travel a couple of miles to the Elgin Cemetery. The graveyard slopes to the West from a hill that abuts a berm on its east end. It is nestled among the gray volcanic hills that are spread out for a hundred miles from that part of Utah, ash laid down in deep striations while the earth heaved and belched eons ago. With care, irrigation, and the right mix of nutrients that ash can yield good produce, the sweetest melons in the world. Absent the tending hand it is hard, unforgiving, rocky, and maddeningly barren. And when the winds pick up everything in sight gets sandblasted, pale and smooth. Before the graves could receive their markers of green and flowers they had to be cleaned of weeds, blown detritus, and obstinate rocks. We moved from grave to grave, pulling the dead back to life in a sermon of memories, giving each one some time, acknowledging them with stories that echoed how their lives were once important to someone, counted for something. It would be a shameful thing to leave one out, or overlook some minor player, a distant cousin or acquaintance. Even the less favored among the dead were remembered, though the memory may be faulty. The Elgin Cemetery is a stark patchwork of makeshift fences, tilting grave markers, some stone, some wood, some marked only by nature with a prickly pear cactus, or a mound of sagebrush. In one corner stands a derelict picket fence that surrounds the grave of a man who fought in the Civil War. Visits to this ancestral bone yard were a crossing into past years and generations, to mingle the living with the dead, spirit with breath, the bones of the departed with the fire of the fleshed. The next day would be marked by a family excursion east, over the mountains from Moab, to Paradox, Colorado. These two places, if viewed from above, would be wings, though slightly askew, stretching out on either side of the laccolith of the LaSal Mountains. Twin valleys, Moab and Paradox, both the remnants of collapsed salt domes, edged by seismic faults, their red and purple sedimentary layers exposed in thousand foot cliffs. Paradox was the home of my dad’s side of the family. The Snyder farm was inhabited by renters, but the compound of houses and out buildings still dotted its 80 acres. The Paradox Cemetery was more of a Boot Hill than the real Boot Hill. The navel of the town, its rocky bulge rose from the flat valley floor, crusted with agate and granitic outcroppings, and dense with the unfriendly cactus, yuccas, and bull snakes native to the area. It was often difficult to find headstones among the overgrown weeds and ragged boulders that pushed through the hard dirt of the Paradox Cemetery. But it was there we remembered the German, Irish, and Mutt that ran in the blood of my father. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, my dad’s brother Claude, killed in a shooting accident at the age of four, were summoned back to a craggy memorial to be remembered in fleeting conversations that were carried away, like tumbleweeds, on a stiff wind. After the graveyard gathering we would go to my Uncle Bill’s house. His wife would make the fried chicken for the Paradox picnic. Starting with the corkscrew twist of a hen’s neck, and ending with a house full of over-fed family, the meal would go from strut and cluck to strawberry shortcake in less than 2 hours. Monday, Memorial Day, would take us back home to Moab. There was the old City Cemetery where Dad’s brother and his wife and son were buried. Relatives, cousins, friends from both sides were buried there. My mom’s cousin, killed in the Battle of the Bulge, was always a point of emphasis for me and my siblings. We learned that it is an honorable thing to share blood with one whose blood was spilled in the contest of freedom. There was a second, newer, cemetery in Moab. Its first graves were of younger people, the generation that followed the one filling the old graveyard. One year, 1970, the last two weeks of May were defined by an unending parade of Memorial Day exertions, relatives, flowers, and death. We received word on May 20th that myeldest brother, Don, had been killed in Vietnam just days earlier. It was a moment that ambushed the hearts of my family. Not an “out of the blue” shock that untimely death often delivers, for Mom had spoken of a premonition she had when Don stepped onto the plane to leave home for the last time, that she would never again see him alive. But no human mind can ever prepare sufficiently to withstand the blow of a child’s death. Memorial Day changed that year, from picnics, stories, and memories, to the hard work of grieving, the toil of searching for a thread of life to take up once the grave was closed. Mom always seemed a little more at home with the dead than the living. Death was a cleansing, a spic and span shine-up for those who passed through its veil, during which the flawed and stigmatized would become strangely perfected, saintly. She seemed to be more comfortable without the complications of living interactions, and perhaps that is why so much of her time was devoted to recalling the reliably silent, and bygone. I carry her blood, and the blood of my dad, who served in the Army during World War II, was recruited into the OSS for a time, and endured horrors at the end of the war that, to his death, were never published upon his tongue. I share the blood of my brother Don. But for me now, in 2011, Memorial Day is bigger, more introspective, and ominous that I had ever thought it before to be. We remember the dead, pray for the living, and honor our war heroes from all eras of American history. We emulate the Patriot zeal of freedom fighters, we rejoice in the privleges and comforts won through “liberating strife.” But my heart shrinks at the thought that American blood is shed abroad, and at home, and few notice, and fewer care. I worry that powerful people trifle with the lives of young servicemen and women, to bolster political activities, or boost poll numbers, or win the favor of dubious counterparts in nations were liberty is selective. Memorial Day, 2011, is the convergence of perilous times, and proud heritage. It is a time for softened hearts, and hardened determination. It is a time when we may lose ourselves to save our nation. The remembrances of my girlhood are sweet, and bitter. Nothing has changed, save the urgency of our times. The sweet and the bitter will always mingle on Memorial Day, like the living and the dead.
By Marjorie Haun 5/30/2011