Happy Memorial Day! What?
Yeah, I know you’re glancing at the calendar because technically Memorial Day was yesterday. But I work at my dog care business on Saturdays and that means TODAY is my bonus day off work. I did, however, recognize the actual day of remembrance with the rest of the population.
Up gray and early (it was anything but bright here…I think we’re in monsoon or something), I loaded my pre-purchased bouquets of real flowers in the Jeep. I know most people place fake flowers on graves because they won’t wilt, but I just can’t bring myself to go down that road. My dad was a Master Gardener and I think he’d prefer the real deal. Plus, I can picture Mom and Grandma inhaling deeply over the tops of the flowers and exclaiming how colorful and fragrant they are. Only fresh flowers sitting in a bucket sloshing water on my floormat on the drive to town will do.
I arrived at Memorial Park cemetery and immediately took several dead-end turns because it seems I can never just drive directly to my family’s plots. To be fair to myself, whomever designed the layout of the cemetery had a dark sense of humor because the place has lots of loops, twists and turns. I’m sure it was done under the guise of aesthetics, but I still say the designer chuckles over it to this day.
And to be honest, I applaud his willingness to indulge in a little impish mirth when creating the maze that would be the final resting place of our loved ones. I’m the self-proclaimed queen of inappropriate humor. Call it immaturity, coping skills, nerves, or just a really twisted view of situations, but I am pretty much always the one guaranteed to blurt out something off-kilter during somber or tense occasions.
So, my solo forays to pay homage to my very dearly departed are probably wise because the comments and conversations I have with myself and my heavenly family are just that…between me and them. And I think we’re all definitely giggling a bit. Especially after I once again make three wrong turns to get to the very spot I’ve been visiting numerous times a year for well over a decade.
I do, however, take this holiday seriously. It’s a time to honor those who served our country and also a time to remember our loved ones. And yes, I have shed a tear or 12 on those grounds. I have felt melancholy. I have felt my heart break anew time and again when I visit my sister in the Lakeside Mausoleum. But also, I have carried on conversations. I have danced. And I have laughed. A lot. I may well be known as the crazy lady who visits Section 48 and if so, I claim it. I own it. Navigating a traditionally somber environment and finding moments of silliness that allow my heartstrings to lift like the fluffy seeds of a dandelion swirling on a breeze may be one of my greatest gifts to myself.
And I have experienced some pretty silly-bordering-on-hysterical moments at Memorial Park. Say, for example, the time the force of mindless habit caused me to click the lock inside my Jeep’s door just after I tossed the keys to said Jeep on the back seat with my grave decorating tools. I realized my mistake just as the door and I switched into a comical slow-motion race to see if disaster would be averted or cemented.
Guess who won? Go ahead. Guess.
So imagine the phone call I made to the locksmith. You know, on a holiday. When they get to charge three-zillion times the normal fee.
Locksmith: “Oh, hi Nancy!” What’s up? (It’s possible there was a time when I may or may not have been a bit prone to locking my keys in my car.)
Me: “Hi Mike. I need a little help…you know.” (insert embarrassed chuckle here)
Locksmith: “Sure, I can be there in an hour that will feel like six days. What’s the address?”
Me: “Well, it’s Section 48 in the southeast corner of the cemetery.”
Once we established I was not making a creepy prank call, Mike promised he was meandering my way. So yeah, I had some quality time to commune with graveside nature while I imagined all the folks in the great beyond chuckling as they watched over me. Did I mention that I had chugged a Diet Dr. Pepper prior to my slight key oversight?
Anyone else consider ducking behind a super large headstone to relieve themselves? No one? Yeah…me neither. Nope. Never entered my mind.
But my absolute best inappropriate laugh came in 2011, six years after my sister Cindy’s ashes were lovingly placed in the Lakeside Mausoleum. I arrived that Memorial Day to find that someone else’s remains had moved in the space to the left of Cindy. The plaque was clean and shiny so I knew our new neighbor had arrived fairly recently.
Her name was Joan E. Clair (first of all, E. Clair? Éclair? Made my sweet tooth sing!), and her life spanned from 1944 to 2011. In that time, according to the inscription, she had earned the titles of Mom, Mamaw, Sister and Anut.
Wait. Anut? Or as I read it, A NUT?
Joan! You crazy mamaw! Welcome to the neighborhood!
Immediately Cindy and I unlocked the door to the room in my brain where inappropriate humor is stored. There, we settled in to create a whole backstory about our new bestie, Joan.
Joan was the live wire of her family. In my mind she had a personality as big as the hair she teased into a trademark messy bun. She wore colorful clothes and didn’t really have time for a lot of make-up, but her broad smile and sparkling blue eyes were the only adornment her face ever needed.
In our story, Joan lived a good life. She was very loved. One does not earn all those titles without being well loved. And while I’m pretty sure we all realize that last term of endearment was intended to read “aunt,” I have a vivid movie playing in my head of her family gathering around on a beautiful sunny day, seeing the typo and bursting out in fits of laughter. You know, the kind that bubbles up uncontrolled and sends streams of good tears to chase the sad ones straight off your cheeks.
Then I imagined them all deciding that one typesetter’s mistake actually made the plaque 100% perfect. “Oh yeah, we’re leaving it just as it is,” they would have said between gasps as they tried to regain composure. “It’s perfect and Mom/Mamaw/Sister/Aunt Joan would certainly agree—she was a nut!”
I’ve never seen anyone visit Joan’s space and that’s perfectly fine. You certainly don’t have to lay flowers on a grave to honor your departed. For me though, visiting and decorating the graves is a ritual I love. It’s a peaceful time when I can chat away, with zero restraint, with the family members that now reside in my heart.
I know my dad approves of the fresh flower choice, though he would caution me not to spend too much money. He’d also nod approval as I make sure the grass is trimmed neatly around the headstone, and that no weeds are growing over the nameplates. I think Mom, who blessed me with a good dose of her emotional sap DNA, gets a tad teary-eyed that I’m there making sure she has pretty flowers to enjoy. She wouldn’t want me to feel obligated, but she appreciates my efforts and I swear I feel her hug away any sadness I might feel.
I think Grandma might be a tad ticked off if I didn’t show up. I say that with a laugh, please don’t misinterpret it. Grandma was a classic, huggable, sweet, pie-baking, baby snuggling grandmother. But she was also old-school, and she liked tradition. If I didn’t show up, she would surely survey the cemetery and note how nice it was that the other families brought flowers. Grandpa…well…he might grunt that he has no use for cut flowers, but then his eyebrows would raise a bit and he’d get that soft, sweet hint of a smile on his face that was his love language to his grandkids and greats.
As for Cindy, well, it’s our talk time. I tell her about the family, I catch her up on her grandkids, though I think she’s constantly keeping track of all of us on her own. But she’d be patient with me and let me chatter away. She’s a great big sister that way.
I have also formally adopted care of Joan’s space as the story in my mind tells me that her family does not live locally, or perhaps they remember Joan with a different family tradition. Whatever the reason, Joan’s vase has remained empty, but I suspect her heart has always been full. When I select flowers for Cindy’s little vase, I get matching flowers for sweet, nutty Joan. And I talk with Joan too. Afterall, we’re practically family.
I realize now that the tradition of placing flowers at the cemetery is as much for me as it is for my family and my new Aunt Joan. And as always, before I leave, I kiss my fingertips and press them on each plaque, telling my angels that I love them, though I know they are not there. Then I press my hand to my chest to feel my own heart expanding and I say, “This is where you live, now and forever.”
I don’t remember them with sorrow, I smile and remember them for everything they brought to life. I dance with them. I sing with them (though it’s not our gift!). I flash a big grin and wave when other visitors catch me seemingly talking to myself and laughing to the clouds. And, as I head back toward home, I always feel a bloom of gratitude that I’m part of an amazing family that can appreciate a good laugh, even in the middle of a cemetery.
Happy Memorial Day Tuesday, everyone.