Memorial Day has always fit so richly in our lives; like an old familiar tune that dances in our head and brings a smile to our lips, enfolding us in warm memories of times long past.
As a child I remember thinking the place and the services only another one of those solemn Baptist affairs held at a country church in Prince William County, Virginia. I thought the backdrop of grassy hillsides and chirping birds were just for the deceased.
Now I know it wasn’t that way at all. It was more than a yearly ritual for the dead. It was a reverence for the living that we observed in memory of all those fallen young men who left home one day to do their duty, and never returned. It was a memorial to all those who fought in wars they little understood. It was a yearly reminder that we needed to pay homage to the lives that once walked these paths.
I do remember sitting on a rickety lawn chair surrounded by friends and family, all of us straining our eyes to see in the bright Virginia sunshine, that floated around us like an ocean of heat; fanning furiously with church bulletins or funeral home fans.
Our Choir Director, always began the service on a dramatic note. She would purse her lips and motion us to silence with her small baton; we stood erect, heads up, singing, a little off-key, (which must have pained her); The Battle Hymn of the Republic; America, and her favorite song in the whole universe, “Amazing Grace.”
I can still see Miss Jessie, dressed in her silky-chartreuse dress, with her matching (Easter) hat, rakishly tilted; shading her plum cheeks and serious blue eyes. Under that unforgiving sun she stood, as she had stood for as long as I could remember: never missing a Memorial Day: Totally inspired, totally dedicated, a grand witness to us, that temporary physical discomfort was a small sacrifice indeed, on such a special day as this.
Floating over the sea of graves and settling gently over our heads, her lovely soprano voice echoed sweetly. She recited some history, and took us back in time to the “War Between the States,” reminding us that remembering the dead was far more than just a formal obligation. The older folks shook their heads in agreement. And there must have been one or two “Amens.”
Someone, usually a local pastor, retold the story of how, in the spring of 1866, a group of young women in Columbus Mississippi, visited the graves of Confederate soldiers at a local cemetery. While there, they carefully placed flowers on Union graves as well, an act of charity that prompted the creation of a national day of healing-Memorial Day.
Following his message, which he delivered with all the gusto of a modern day Abe Lincoln, there would be more singing Then came the long closing prayer. And in the stillness, the wind seemed to whisper, “remember me, remember,” as it flowed and stirred the leaves of the sugar maples that surrounded the cemetery like ancient warriors. And for that moment, we were transfixed; and time stood still in that historical city of the dead.
After the services, the grownups embraced and hugged the children so tightly we struggled to escape. Everyone strolled slowly past the graves, admiring the fresh flowers, carefully reaching out to trace the inscriptions with their fingertips. “Father of” “Son of,” wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg; “Devoted Son; Rest in Peace.” Messages gently carved so long ago, still speaking, begging to be remembered.
We eventually followed a rocky, flag-lined path to waiting cars ready to whisk us quickly away from this quiet place to yet another sanctuary, Triangle Baptist Church, and the promise of dinner on the grounds.
Dinner on the grounds, with fried chicken and iced tea that was so rich and black and sweet it would almost make you sick. So cold it sent daggers of sharp pains through your head if you gulped it down, and we did.
These days when I ride around the counties and see the neglect in so many of our country cemeteries, some gone as though they never existed, many simply forgotten; I wonder if it is true that civilizations are closely judged by the way they honor their dead? If they are what does that say about us?
Then I remember Memorial Days long past, friends long gone. I see an endless sea of faces, names; and I see the spirit of dear Miss Jessie, standing straight and tall in her bright silk dress, eyes lifted to heaven, directing a multitude of off-key voices, filling the air with sweet strains of “Amazing Grace.”
And I am somewhat relieved knowing that in a certain Memorial cemetery in Virginia, the past and the future are part of the present. The veterans who rest there would always receive the honor that is their due.
I don’t think Miss Jessie would ever have it any other way…