Monday, May 28, 2012

Decoration Day

This is a holiday that always makes me just a little blue.  If you've read Ask the Cool Cookie's excellent meditation on the subject, you'll more or less know why. 

I wonder, from all these thousands of miles away, if anyone is looking after the little knot of graves I wrote about a few years ago, clustered there on their hillside looking out toward the Lake.  I imagine not, as none of us live anywhere near there, now, and like Cookie, I expect I'm about the only one left likely to think of such a thing, even on Memorial Day.

Once upon a time, of course, this was a real holiday, not (or at least not only) an excuse for picnics, long weekends, and blowout sales.  It meant not just the beginning of summer, but also the first of the year's three ritual calls on the, as it were, extended family, those gone before.  The other visits, of course, were Labor Day, for a pre-autumn tidy, and finally Veteran's Day, to make sure things were set for another long, cold winter.

First, we - my mother and I - would get up early, or rather earlier than than usual (Mother Muscato being very much a morning person) and go to the garden center, for geraniums.  Then she'd tool her ginormous Gran Torino around town, picking up first Grandmother Muscato, then Great Aunt Edna, and then, most years, our second cousin Louise whose only living relatives we were.  Then it was up the hill to the cemetery, and the process reversed itself, with Louise dropped near her family just by the main gate, and Aunt Edna near hers in the shadow of one of the vast Victorian mausoleums (mausolea?) in the middle, and then finally the first of our two stops, to take care of Grandmother Muscato's people over by the far side (a small blue cottage across the street being a handy landmark; when I was last there, in 2007 or so, it still was). 

With Grandfather, Aunt-Marie-Who-You-Never-Knew, She-Married-Poorly-and-Died-Young, and Great Grandmother taken care of, we'd go up the hill to Father Muscato's side's plot, in those days nearly unoccupied except for a maiden aunt and a child or two.  Earlier on, Edna and Louise would already have made their way there on foot (later on, when they found the hill more daunting, we'd pick them up again en route) and we'd tidy up this largest and most impressive of the plots, its single monolith with the family name safeguarding the empty spaces.  One got the sense that Edna and Louise, mother's side, always felt vaguely out of place, obliged to say something nice about the view, but not much more.  Mother was unsentimental about Father's family, and her tidying was faster here than down below, the geraniums less carefully placed and the shrubs clipped more hurriedly.  Afterward, we'd go for lunch at the Club, sitting in the less formal of its two dining rooms in recognition of our gardening clothes.

Now, these forty years or so later, I'm the only one of that Gran Torino-load left, and the only one not tidily tucked in there in that green and pleasant cemetery.  Grandmother (who was born, I just realized, the year of the last Diamond Jubilee for an English queen), Edna, and Louise were all girls together not too far off from the time of the Pickfordesque girl above.  Grandmother, in fact, had once upon a time attended an encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic with her own Grandfather, who was at Antietam.  Somewhere (unless its been discarded by the Evil Stepmother who has somehow ended up in custody of so many family things), there is a charming photograph of her, 'round about 1908, perched in her starched, frilled dress and big round hat on her Grandfather's knee, surrounded by a circle of grizzled veterans.  Mother was a Depression child and a Second War bride, but now she's up there as well, up on the hill with the side of the family whose graves she spent all those years short-shrifting.

I always assumed I would go and join them there, come the time, but now that seems unreal, unlikely.  The family is scattered, quarrelsome, preoccupied with our very different lives in very different places.  I can't even get Mr. Muscato into the U.S. for more than a visit alive, let alone (very) permanently otherwise, and he's significantly less enamored of the family even than Mother at her most acerbic.  Worrying about what one wears to lunch (especially when what one is wearing is a tweed suit or, if you're Louise and slightly daring, a pantsuit) seems as antediluvian as, well, encampments of the Grand Army. 

On Memorial Day, it's good to spend a moment considering all of this, even in such a muddled and inconclusive way.  Summer's coming, after all, and we might not think of them again 'til fall...


  1. Yours and Cookies experiences here are so poignantly different than mine. My family is scattered untidily all over the South; I'm sure no one knows where everybody is.

  2. On May fifth of last year I inurned my grandparents (de facto parents to brother Plumcake and self, they died a week apart the previous Christmas) at Arlington National Cemetery and was still in Arlington a few weeks later for Memorial Day.

    This year I'm far away, and although two of their children live nearby, I wonder if either of them thought to decorate their graves.

    I'm not sure what about being an expat makes it more difficult (and I still remember May 5 primarily as Coco Chanel's birthday, which is possibly telling) but it is, and thank you for writing so tenderly about it.