When the Peonies bloomed like giant red and white carnations, and I was allowed to go barefoot for the first time in the almost-summer time, and the old World War I American Legion vets put their local post caps on when they went to the hardware store, I knew it was a special day called Decoration Day. It usually is called Memorial Day today. Yet since its origin, many have called it Decoration Day. The reason? Quite simple: It was a day to remember those who had fallen in our nation’s wars, going all the way back to the broken-hearted years following the American Civil War, by decorating their graves.
I am sure my days in rural, agrarian Louisiana were not that different from the days of a boy in rural, agrarian Indiana or rural California. It was just the way things were in America in those days. On Decoration Day, we all would go decorate the graves of those uncles, grandfathers, fathers, cousins and neighbors who had died during the conflict of World War I or World War II or Korea.
So, we would go out to the Palmetto Cemetery in Walker, which used to be called Milton Oldfield, and decorate those graves. Or we would go to the National Cemetery in Baton Rouge (which would’ve been pretty much an all-day affair, plus having to catch a ride, so we only went there every other year or so) where my uncle Woodrow’s body lay. Uncle Woodrow Milton was killed while serving in the Navy during World War II. I always will remember my Aunt Eva and her sister, my Aunt Georgia, talking about the day they stood there in 1942 at the exact spot where we would be standing on Decoration Day.
“I can still see poor Mama sobbing,” Aunt Georgia would whisper to herself as her memories caused her to lift her shiny black purse up, snap it open, and pull out an embroidered handkerchief. She would dab her eyes. Aunt Eva wouldn’t talk. She just looked down at the gravestone of her little brother. I looked at them. Then they would begin decorating. In some ways in my mind, I am still standing there, not saying a word lest I desecrate the moment.
We always would go to the grave of my father. My father did not die directly as a result of a war, but he served in World War II. Jessie Ellis Milton, a graduate of the New London Officer’s Academy, commanded a Merchant Marine ship that carried troops during the war. His war was fought in the frigid and dangerous waters of the North Atlantic where German U-boats went in deadly schools under the white-capped waves by Greenland and on into his destination of Liverpool. The seagoing services were his life. My father died of complications from alcoholism, which were part of the complications of his soul, which were part of the complications of the seagoing life, which were part of the complications of the war. He received the same decorating as his brother and my other Uncle (who had served in WWI) and all the others. Whether they died in the service or after, it didn’t matter. They had served. So, we decorated my father’s grave.
It occurs to me that someone might read this and wonder what it means to decorate a grave. It does sound anachronistic, and I suppose it is. There is much good work by the Boy Scouts of America in particular today as they decorate the graves of veterans all over America. My son, who is now an Eagle Scout, spent many Memorial Day mornings in his scouting years decorating graves of veterans. I always will recall with great pride the sight of our Chattanooga Scouts placing miniature American flags on the acres of graves at the National Cemetery in that beautiful community where I was pastor. So I pay tribute to those who still remember Memorial Day in that way. However, the Decoration Days I remember were more of a family occasion, a solemn and moving day when few words were spoken. There were certain ways to decorate a grave. To decorate a grave, one would not only plant a miniature U.S. flag, but in those days, it particularly meant the women would clean the gravestone and place fresh flowers in either a vase or at the foot of the headstone. We would bring a hoe and remove any weeds that had grown up around the grave.
When I hear the story of the women going to prepare the body of Jesus after He had been placed in the borrowed tomb, I always think about the women in my life as I was growing up who decorated the graves. There was a nobility in that act. There was a sort of holiness in it. A man would not do that. It was not because men were too good, but because there was a feminine sympathy and compassion which was understood to be more intuitively proper for such a holy task. War was men’s work. That was their honor and their duty. Caring for the dead and the children and grandchildren of those men would be the work of the women. That was their honor and their duty. No one said that. It just was so. Tending their graves was a sacred role the women did not even think to share with the men. I remember being a boy and seeing a female cousin about my age, probably about 12 at the time, when she decided it was her time to join the grown women. I just watched and felt that my female cousin was becoming a woman. She got on her knees and began to remove weeds from my father’s grave. No one said a thing. No one, none of the women at least, so much as paused to watch. It just happened. That’s just the way things were. The men would watch and often would hold a vase or fetch the hoe from the trunk of the car as the wife gave the command. Yet this was their work, and noble work it was.
So when I hear Memorial Day, I think Decoration Day; my mind goes back to those far-away places and those solemn occasions that stirred me every bit as much as the president of the United States placing a wreath at Arlington. The memory snuck up on me today and stirs me again. It is Decoration Day and I am still following this calling in ministry. I am a long way from my father’s grave. My aunts are in heaven. So, I don’t think the women in my family would mind if I at least decorate their graves, the warriors and their women, with holy memory and a grateful heart.