“So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” -- John 16:22
Nobody worked the farm on Decoration Day, at least not past 9 in the morning. After the eggs were gathered, chicken feed scattered, cows milked and turned out to pasture, after a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast with last year’s apricot jam, we got cleaned up to go to the cemetery. Grandma Elvie cut an armload of fruit blossom branches and perfumed lilac, wrapping the bases of each in wet paper towels until they filled the concrete vases by the headstones.
By the time Aunt Lorene, Grandma and Uncle Marvin piled into the car and headed past town, a slow string of farm cars had already gathered in the same general direction towards memory. We turned into the gate, with its great carved flowers wrought in iron, glancing back over our shoulders at the Catholic cemetery across the road where the remains of half the family rested under oak and pine.
No one spoke as we drove to the crest of the hill, that newest part of the cemetery offering the best vantage of a sea of American flags. Somebody’s brother, uncle, father, and once, a sister, lay silently under the newly mown grass, freshened by the groundskeeper for the occasion. It looked like death but smelled like life, stories lingering behind the silence of that day when the telegram arrived with impossible news. We decorated the graves of fallen soldiers first, then long-gone relatives.
Across the decades, we’ve moved far from the small town of my childhood. Each new town raised banners for its local heroes. We spoke the names aloud on Decoration Day, or Remembrance Day, or Memorial Day, so that those who served and those who died would never be forgotten. We speak them still.
Any wake worth its salt concludes with a righteous meal. Though my elders seemed to linger long, we soon enough joined the parade of cars patiently crunching their way down gravel paths that separated the burial sites. Back on the main road to town, we stopped by my aunt’s house long enough for her to hustle inside and retrieve the German chocolate cake we’d have for lunch.
Dreaming of the fried chicken and mashed potatoes ahead, we crossed the bridge that crossed the creek, headed down the old Schaefer coal mine road and up the cinder drive towards home. We grandkids wondered how long we could wait before chasing chickens in the yard or climbing the hay-mow. We felt the weight of sorrow between these adults who mostly cherished us and delighted in us. Yet today their far away looks and knowing glances reminded us of what they thought we didn’t know or wouldn’t understand. The loss of those we love hurts, and though the pain softens in time, we bear the marks of their passing always.
Just for today, we lean back in memory and commend to God with gratitude once again, those mostly young men who left their farms, went to war, and never returned.
Prayer: Lord of life, we thank you for the untold stories and sacrifices of those who lost their lives, defending the freedoms we so often take for granted. And we pray for that day when fewer flags each year mean a path forward to greater peace and prosperity in this land we call home. Amen
God’s grace, mercy and peace be with you,
Rev. Dr. Anna V. Copeland
Community Church of Vero Beach
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