Memorial Day

Today smells of cut grass, and fresh dirt.

Breathing in the air on this Monday holiday of Memorial Day weekend, I am aware that wafting smells of burgers, BBQ, and chlorine-ready swimming pools also greet us in this coming-of-summer rite of passage.  Poppies are being passed out by the VFW volunteers at the front entrances of grocery stores and monolithic big-box stores.  Parades and marching bands are practicing in small towns, and my local small-city minor league baseball team is setting off fireworks and recognizing those who have served between innings.  I see and hear a lot of “God Bless America” and my heart is heavy with emotion.  I get squeamish about the politics of patriotism I see on display, and the lines of demarcation that seem to be present in the way in which flags and faith are worn on sleeves as badges of honor.  But, like many citizens on both sides of the aisle and varied religious expressions, I am grateful and prayerful on this day not just for a day off or the coming of summer, but for service and sacrifice.  That is real.

Today smells of cut grass, and fresh dirt.

Perhaps the enormity of these tensions within modern American life propel me to remember an earlier time when I didn’t feel differences as profoundly as I felt connection.  My earliest memories are not of “Memorial Day” but of “Decoration Day.”  That may have to do with my upbringing in Western New York, or the changing landscape of life that shifted the name given to this day right around the same time I came to be in this world.  My recollection of this long weekend in my own history involves care and attention to our local cemeteries, especially the grave markers of family members and friends who had gone before.  First, the urns and floral frames would be washed and the wintery silt removed from them.  Farming families that live close to the edge don’t run to Walmart for disposable plastic floral sprays…and that wasn’t even an option that entered the landscape of my early years.  Instead, we gathered greenery and arranged urns of flowers stuck into well-soaked oasis and formed wreaths of cut laurel tied with ribbons.  We trimmed the grass and pulled weeds from the dirt, and we planted some colorful bedding plants around gravestones.  But most importantly, we heard stories.  I heard from my Gramma about great aunts, uncles, friends and cousins from other generations.  I heard family lore about people’s accomplishments, how they lived, how they died.  Some stories were funny, and some were sad.  I was young, so I don’t recall the details with as much clarity as I now wish I did.  But, what did sink in to me were connection and contribution: how people’s lives were so closely linked with my own, and how we contributed to the fabric of our family, our community, our country, our world.  Those lessons seeped into my roots in the same way that water flowed from our big, green watering cans and into the soil of new plantings.  More than just the flowers were nurtured in that work.

Today smells of cut grass, and fresh dirt.

I am digging in my own garden, miles away from the small town in which I was raised.  I wish I could attend to the flowers at the grave of my Gramma, or to place sweet smelling flowers around all those whose lives have touched my own.  Instead, I work the dirt in my own yard and I think, and I pray.  I pray for people I remember fondly, and for those who I don’t remember but whose service and sacrifice formed the roots on which my life can grow and contribute.  I dig in my garden, and I think about roots.  I think about about how essential it is for us all to recognize where we came from, how we are connected, and who sacrificed in order for us to have the space and time and privilege to grow into the fullness of who we are, becoming all that we are meant to be.  I take note of the fact that my garden has some carefully planted flowers and herbs, and some volunteers that somehow are managing to grow in unintended places.  A new sprout of Chinese Ginger poked through this year on the other side of the yard from its rhizomatic roots; whether carried by squirrel or serendipity, it is thriving in a place that I haven’t been able to get anything else to grow.  It seems to be right at home amid the herbs on the other side of the yard even though it is well outside the influence of its familial group.  Somehow, I can relate.

Today smells of cut grass, and fresh dirt.

As a society, I don’t think we spend enough time in cemeteries any more.  We keep death at arms length, looking as close to life-like as possible.  We question those who continue to visit grave-side as if they cannot “let go,” and we may think it odd to pack a picnic to share on the grass between the headstones in the midst of a day of clean-up as we once did.  I don’t think this is because we have evolved; it is because we are growing more fearful of death.  I once worked at a grief counseling agency that was located on the edge of a cemetery (I know…I know…but it was!) and I was amazed that when I took groups of children walking in the cemetery as a part of our grief groups that they never simply walked through a cemetery before.  They were amazed at the space, the stones, the tributes…it demystified and hopefully deescalated their horror-story movie fears.  Now, the more common practice in our cemeteries is to pay a maintenance fee for grass-cutting and landscaping, to know that the space will be well-groomed and meticulously manicured by others, and to sign papers acknowledging flowers and plantings are not allowed.  Uniformity, ease of care-taking…these we value.  To me, these practices further distance our living from our remembering.  And yet, we crave depth, that “something” that people sense and experience when they visit the Vietnam Memorial for example.  Where do we find connection, and how do we pay tribute?  How can we truly pay our regards to those whose sacrifice was ultimate, for a greater good?  The truth is, we have to pay those respects in any way that way can, in any way it feels honest rather than distancing.  Even in our own thoughts, in our prayers, or maybe even our own gardens where those thoughts and prayers can flow freely on the coming-of-summer breezes and convey a depth of remembrance and gratitude.

Today smells of cut grass, and fresh dirt.

I breathe it in, and remember.  Memory is always a small point of light.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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