My parents married when my mother was 25 and my father was 50. Having found himself a widower with two teenage kids, he was lucky enough to be able to begin a “second” family with a wonderful lady and three more little girls.
As a child, I had a Mom who was the same age as everyone else’s Mom and a Dad who would often be mistaken for my grandfather. Of course, my sisters and I didn’t find it at all unique until we got older and realized that our family was different than most.
Because he had grown up in a different time, we knew more about the Great Depression, Ted Williams and WWII than most elementary school age girls. Along with his stories though, came traditions from an era that many of our friends couldn’t appreciate – and one of those was what Memorial Day really meant.
Each year, he would go to the market and buy flowers to plant on the graves of relatives that had passed on. Granted, they were usually cheap red geraniums (or whatever was on sale), and we liked to think that this was due to his Depression-era frugality rather than his lack of floral taste. Either way, Bill Meek (who at that point was well into his 60s) would pack up his little girls and head off to pay their respects.
We would find ourselves at two different cemeteries; one here in Dedham where my grandmother Rose is buried and then it was off to West Roxbury to adorn the grave of his first wife, Jean.
I remember the sunny days, the dirt between my fingers, those red geraniums and the silent prayers while we knelt in front of the headstones. We had never met either of these women but we knew that it was important to him…and therefore it was important to us.
My father passed away at the age of 85 while I was pregnant with my first son. Before Ben was born, I found the grave of my grandmother and said a little prayer. I’ll admit, I was praying for an easy labor, but a Shumway tradition had been born.
Ben arrived in April and on his first Memorial Day, I brought him back to plant flowers at the graves of his great grandmother and even at Jean’s. Knowing that my father would have appreciated someone tending to these women when he no longer could gave the experience that much more meaning.
Thirteen years later, we still hit the flower market on Memorial Day weekend, pack up our gardening tools, watering cans and head out to continue the tradition. We now count my husband’s great grandparents and great uncles (who are also buried nearby) as places we visit and the kids help plant flowers, tidy up the markers and say prayers. When I explained to my friend Bob what we were doing on Monday, he remarked that while we are often trying to forget and move past things, it’s so nice to stop, reflect, and remember.
I love watching the kids take so seriously a tribute that is almost 41 years in the making, even though they, same as I, never even knew the relatives that they are praying for. I can only hope that when they are parents, they make the same trip with their kids and pass it on to them.
And if they buy the cheap red geraniums, all the better.