Friday, February 5, 2010

The Cemetery Soft Shoe

Some of my earliest memories of visiting extended family members involves adhoc meetings by ancestors graves on Decoration Day.

Yes, I’m old enough to know ‘Memorial Day’ as ‘Decoration Day’.

My mother always made sure that we visited all of the graves of her ancestors and my fathers ancestors that were buried within a 30 mile radius on that day in May.

I’d sit in the back seat and hold all of the cans, bottles and containers of flowers upright from grave to grave, cemetery to cemetery so the water didn’t spill and the gathered flowers weren’t abused and contused.
The fragrances were so intense they often left me a bit high. I never smoked, drank or took drugs. I’m a flower head.

The Iris and Peonies faired well in these excursions. The Baby’s Breath and Snowballs tried to be good, but I’d still have to spend a few minutes at each stop retrieving errant pedals that littered the seat and floor.

Mom would talk to her siblings, aunts, uncles and friends at each stop who were also there decorating the graves of our family and ancestors. They were mini-reunions that often functioned much like a progressive party with people joining, visiting and dropping off as the procession moved from grave to grave in the cemeteries.

During these daylong excursions, I’d carefully look at the names and dates on the stones and try to imagine what the folks buried there looked like in life. I’d seen most of them in photos but relatively few of them in life.

At each grave I’d look for landmarks that wouldn’t move or change over time and memorize them so I could find the graves again on my own when I was ‘grown up’ and visiting alone or with my own wife and kids.

Always trying to recede into the background during these meet and greets to avoid being stepped on and possibly bored by adult conversation, I’d walk to the side of the tombstones and quietly talk to my ancestors who were buried there.

“Hi. I’m your grandson. Things are going pretty good. I’m in ‘x’ grade now and have learned to read / write / multiply / sing / dance.”

Kids_dancingSing and Dance? Come on, who’d tell their grandparents that they could sing and dance? Well, I did. A dancing instructor came to the little school I attended once a week. He made us hold hands and touch the girls in the class and parade around doing the jitterbug, quickstep and the dreaded waltz.

Like the other boys in the class, I’d verbally exclaim my disgust with this activity but privately, I was amazed that I eventually learned to not step on my partners feet and toes more than five or ten times a dance. I’d risen to the state of an accomplished dancer in my opinion, so why not tell my ancestors about something I was so proud of doing?

Thus it was that if any adult had been sharp eyed during the Decoration Day gabfests, they’d have seen a young redheaded kid dancing on his ancestors graves. I was just showing them what I could do. Every grandkid shows their grandparents what they have learned. Don’t they?

The tradition has survived the decades although I don’t think even my wife and kids know about it. When we visit the same graves plus those of my parents, siblings, nephews, etc., -- even my own future burial spot one day, I always hang back just a step or two behind the rest as we are leaving. A soft shuffle ensues.

“Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, see what I can do?” -- and to myself – “Here are few steps for the day when you can’t do them yourself in body. Enjoy the memory.”