How a grandmother’s mission to tend memories inspired her granddaughter to do the same
My mother crouched close to the headstone, pressing firmly on the clear packing tape; she took aim and sprayed a fresh coat of Scotch guard over the newly purchased artificial flowers.
I snapped a picture on my phone while my grandmother and daughter stood nearby, supervising. The four of us stood at the gravesite of my great-grandmother. Paying our respects required a carload of artificial flowers, two cans of scotch guard (to protect the color), and several rolls of tape. I’ve never felt so Southern.
Today was Decoration Day at the Mt. Vinson United Methodist Church cemetery. Each year on the Saturday before the second Sunday in May, this small country church 90 miles east of Memphis becomes brilliant with the adornments of flowers and wreaths left by loved ones. We enjoyed a church supper prepared by some of the ladies of the congregation, but I noticed very few young people around.
This tradition is as old as my 83-year-old grandmother can recall, and, for as long as I can remember, she has traveled back to rural west Tennessee to tend the gravesites of her mother, sister, mother-in-law, and, now, husband. Participation was new to me, but I felt a deep urge to bring my ten-year-old daughter to join my mother and grandmother, so we could witness this poignant ritual of remembering.
“Why are we here?” my daughter asked. But, at that moment, I wasn’t sure, other than to please the living. Yet, a few minutes later, before we were to leave Mt. Vinson and drive over to another cemetery, I knew why.
I captured a photo of my grandmother with her dearest friend of nearly 70 years, walking hand in hand to my great-aunt’s headstone. I had a glimpse of the courage and dignity it takes to keep living after your family, friends, and spouse have died. I overheard them talking to each other about a basketball teammate from their high school days and realized how little I may ever know about the fullness of their long lives.
This realization became even clearer after we arrived at the next cemetery. Having finished our tasks, my grandmother pointed out to the woods that surrounded this second cemetery. “There are more graves out there, but no one is here to tend them anymore,” she said sadly. Now by herself, my grandmother has taken on the work of tending the memories of her entire generation and one or two past.
In fact, just before we departed she shared a true story of lost love. Standing at the plot of another family I learned that a relative of my grandmother had sought a marriage to the woman buried there, but it was forbidden by the girl’s parents. The young man went off to war. Both went on the marry others and have happy enough lives. But as we stood next to her family’s plot, I could hear the loss it must’ve been to both.
As I looked at the trees which marked the boundary, I thought about the people who aren’t remembered now. I have a new appreciation for my grandmother’s personal mission to take time to remember. She risks the grief of knowing someday we may run out of people to recall our stories. I’m grateful to have spent a day helping her keep those memories burning just a bit longer, and I hope someday my daughter will too.
This post is dedicated to all who lost their lives serving, and to their families and loved ones.
Question: How can your family practice remembrance across generations this Memorial weekend?
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