It’s Memorial Day, a day that has meant different things me me at different times in my life. When I was in grade school we had programs, sometimes in the gym and sometimes at the town hall. Once I recited In Flanders Fields and I had no real idea what it was about. I remember practicing patriotic songs like God Bless America and the Marine’s Hymn. We children marched up to the little country cemetery and put paper flags on graves, and then we all went home and had a picnic to celebrate the end of the school year and the start of summer.
For years another part of Memorial Day, Mom called it Decoration Day, was to get all the metal planters back from Millard Cemetery, Tibbets Cemetery, Hazel Ridge Cemetery in Elkhorn, and the German Settlement Cemetery over near East Troy. Then the planters would be sanded, repainted, weighted down and refilled with fresh artificial flowers. That’s an oxymoron. Then off we’d go, to decorate the graves. I never knew the grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and great uncles whose graves received her attention, and as she got older my mother decorated fewer markers. I went off to college and then got a teaching job, and I didn’t go out to the cemeteries with her, except a couple times after Dad died. I guess I left it to her because I was too busy. Finally she stopped decorating altogether, unable to get out, forbidden to drive because of poor health.
I’ve taken up decorating graves now. After my mother died a few years ago I made it my task to remember my relatives who have gone before me. And now I know almost all of them, parents, grandparents, even my youngest sister. I take flowers, and grass clippers, and a whisk broom, and I remember them all.
One grave in particular stands out this year, a year when we are thinking again as a nation about the sacrifices families make in times of war. My maternal grandfather, Howard Tess, served in World War I in France. I know from his obituary in1970 that he was a private in the 7th Military Police Company, and that he served in France. I have a picture of him looking impossibly young in his uniform, looking nothing like the grandpa I loved. I know from my mother that the only things he ever told her was that the journey to France by boat made him dreadfully seasick, and that he hated the rats in the trenches. I never heard him speak of his war experiences, ever. When I asked Grandma, shortly before her death a couple years ago, about his time in the war, she said she didn’t remember. What was war like for him? I’ll never know, and I wish I did. So now all I can do is remember the kind man, the master bell-spinner who also worked for the war effort in World War II, when his band equipment factory (Holtons) made munitions, the man who never spoke of his serving his country, but who surely did. At least he came home after his service.