(Editor's note: This column is a reflection on Memorial Day and will run in two parts. Part 1 ran on Wednesday, May 23.)
When I think of my grandparents, he shows up in overalls and she's wearing a homemade house dress and apron, the apron tied at the waist and pinned to her dress at the shoulders. And she never went out, hoe in hand, without her sunbonnet, also handmade. A real lady had creamy white skin, and although Grandma never managed to achieve that standard of beauty (having been born, for starters, with distinctly olive coloring), she tried. Grandpa, too, protected his head, with a well-worn felt cowboy hat that he sweated through in nothing flat.
Thus they went forth every day equipped for work, intent upon it, dedicated to it. Those luscious fruits and vegetables out there in the hot sun were LIFE, and life doesn't wait. They did their best to corral us, to slow our head-long summer romp through the garden, to foist sunbonnets upon us and thrust hoes and rakes into our grubby little hands. I remember thinking I really SHOULD help out more, take more of an interest, learn something while I was at it. But the fork in the big tree behind the milk house was calling my name, my book was still stashed there from the day before, and I was hot and tired and needed a drink of ice cold water from the well .... and I never quite found time to own responsibility and discipline in any discernible way.
There was one time of year, though, when we ALL pitched in and did our part. I'm chagrined to say, it had a lot to do with the fact that we got PAID for our efforts, but, well ...
Every year in the days preceding Memorial Day, my grandparents would cut huge armloads of tightly-budded peonies from the garden, wrap them in wet burlap, and store them in crocks full of well water in the cool and spacious cement-lined root cellar. Other hardy flowers, too, found their way into crocks, awaiting that early-morning observance at cemeteries around the countryside. Our job as grandchildren was to take dull paring knives and snip daisy bouquets, in counts of twenty-five, band them with rubber and put them into jars in the cellar. It was always a treat to go from the sunny garden to the damp coolness of "the pit," and Grandma and Grandpa paid us an astounding 25 cents per bouquet, a fortune! Do you have any idea what a treasure trove a quarter -- let alone several pocket-burning dollars -- would buy at Woolworth's, McClellan's or Duckwall's in the 1950's? We were RICH!
And we did somehow have a sense of having contributed to something very special. The day before Memorial Day, which was known as Decoration Day back then, and very early the morning of, neighbors and strangers from surrounding areas started pulling into the drive to collect the big flower baskets and smaller bundles they'd pre-ordered. And many, knowing there was always "extra," stopped by just to see what they might pick up. The air had a special freshness about it and people invariably seemed happy and intent on their mission.
I remember feeling so proud of my grandma for her ability to grow and arrange flowers into spectacular gifts, and a connectedness to all those people coming to embrace her talents. I felt firmly tied to all the generations being honored on those Memorial weekends, and I still remember snippets of stories from the conversations I overheard.
After all the paying customers had retrieved their floral offerings, Grandma let us kids have the leftover daisy bundles to place on the graves of the unnamed and unremembered babies from the 1800's in our small community cemetery a mile from the farm. It always felt like we'd done something amazing by honoring those brief little lives, and the yearly military ceremony conducted by aging war heroes in a sometimes haphazard and ill-fitting assortment of service garb lent added poignancy .
If my grandparents were here now and could somehow read my heart (which I always felt they could), they would be gratified to know how much I actually DID learn through their example and the privilege of living in their shadow. Things like hard work, respect for the living and the dead, a certain acceptance that no matter what happens life goes on ... these things have stood me in good stead over all the years since Grandma and Grandpa left us.
As with most farmers of that generation, indeed most people in general, they never became wealthy. But the things they passed along to us are beyond price ... and well worth consciously appreciating as another Memorial Day rolls around.