Memorial Day in the Washington, D.C. area meant a sea of flags waving brilliantly through Arlington Cemetery.
It meant Rolling Thunder motorcyclists descending upon the nation’s capital to bring public attention to prisoners of war and those missing in action.
And, it meant one of our favorite traditions of gathering with friends on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the annual Memorial Day concert.
There is nothing quite like a Washington, D.C. Memorial Day — especially sitting on the lawn of the Capitol, listening to patriotic music and then watching an array of fireworks light up the city from the Washington Monument.
Utah, however, has its own style of Memorial Day.
The first year we lived here, I took my mom to the cemeteries about a week before Memorial Day to place flowers on the graves of our relatives. It was a sweet, tender tradition that she’d kept up her entire life. I didn’t realize then that I’d be needing to decorate her grave the following year!
Last year, after she died, I went to the grocery store and saw massive amounts of mums lining the sidewalks leading to the grocery stores. I wondered why mums were out so early. I thought they were fall flowers. (Obviously, I’m not always very observant.)
As it got closer to Memorial Day, my sister, who lives about three hours south, said, “Don’t forget to decorate the graves now that mom’s not here to do it.”
I had so many questions. I hadn’t paid attention to all the details of this new job.
Whose graves? Where do I get the flowers? How do I keep them from blowing over in all the Utah wind? How do I find all the graves?
“You know all the mums you’ve seen everywhere? Those are the flowers you buy,” she said. “You take them to all the family graves. And you go to the dry cleaners and buy hangers, straighten them out, cut them into two pieces, and shape them like hooks. The hook end goes in the plant and the other end goes in the ground. That keeps them from tipping over in the wind.”
We were such Memorial Day rookies last year that we actually went on Memorial Day. The cemeteries were packed. It was hard to drive on the streets and parking was scarce. Some families took lawn chairs and had picnics near their family graves. There were reunions everywhere as family members met and reminisced. This was something we’d never seen before.
So that’s why mom went earlier in the week, I thought.
I realized too that I hadn’t paid close attention to the locations of all the graves as I drove my mother to the cemeteries. So, Doug and I did a lot of looking at maps, calling relatives, and traipsing around, trying to find our family graves.
We vowed to be better prepared this year. So, as soon as we saw the mums for sale, we bought them. My brother got in on the tradition and gathered up and “built” (his word) the hangers to secure the plants to the ground. Then, last Friday, we went to the graves. It took some time to find them all but we did it.
And, I have to say, it was a sweet, new tradition. I felt more connected to my family and my Utah roots.
We did a lot of reminiscing — remembering how mom threatened to haunt us if we ever put plastic flowers on her grave, and how she took a watering can and a broom to clean off the debris around the headstones. I realized how much I never noticed about this family tradition.
As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, it’s been a year of loss. So, we had a couple more graves to visit, including my mom’s and my older brother’s. But there was something tender about going to these family graves and honoring them — their lives and legacies.
As I saw all the flowers, flags and wreaths on all the graves and the crowds of families gathered together to honor their ancestors, it reminded me of the power and lasting love of families.
It was not be like seeing the Rolling Thunder motorcyclists roar down the DC streets.
It wasn’t like seeing 14,000 flags waving at Arlington Cemetery.
And, it definitely wasn’t like listening to a concert on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol or seeing the fireworks burst over the city.
It wasn’t a national celebration on a grand scale this year. But, it may have been a little more personal, intimate and sentimental than other Memorial Days I’ve celebrated.
So, while we paused to honor the armed forces who have protected us on the world stage and on the front lines, we also paid tribute to the family members who have loved and protected us on the most basic level of the home front.
It made me deeply grateful for both.