Every year we decorate the graves of our kin for Memorial Day. Because we have to visit several cemeteries that are miles and miles apart, this usually takes two days, the Saturday and the Monday of the Memorial Day weekend. First we go decorate my husband’s son’s grave. We always put something on his ex-wife’s grave too, ostensibly on behalf of his daughter. It’s a good exercise in forgiveness every year, a tiny gesture that says, Let’s not hold onto the bitterness of the past; let’s enjoy flowers and beauty together.
Then we hike across the hill one row over to decorate his grandparents’ graves. The grandfather used to grow prize-winning flowers. I wonder if any of ours would be near his standard. Probably not! Another row over from them lie the grandmother’s parents’ graves. Then starts the conversation where we revisit the controversies. The grandmother always denied that her father was a polygamist. But his gravestone is engraved with not only his information, but that of his first wife too, and her death date is four years after his second marriage. Nearby is the big gravestone for his second wife, who happened to have been married to a man who died before she married this great-grandfather of my husband. So both of his grandmother’s parents had first spouses, and we always discuss how disgruntled she was because of that fact.
Now we hike over another steeper hill to the final row where the great-great grandmother’s grave lies. She was a member of the infamous Willie Handcart Company of 1856. She was 53 years old at the time, and she was apparently something of a rebel. She had been born not far from Stonehenge in England and had played among the stones as a child. She had grown up, borne an illegitimate child and kept him herself to raise, against all the custom of the time, and she had married instead of being “ruined” as they used to say in those days. When the Mormon missionaries appeared in her town (Bath, we think), she and her son joined the Church. Her son emigrated while she got married and adopted a little girl who was, according to the family lore, the illegitimate daughter of a servant. Her husband died in 1854, so she began to arrange for herself and the little daughter to join her son in America. She joined the ill-fated company and under her breath complained about the conditions. When things got really, really bad and people were dying by the dozens, she is reputed to have sung to herself the refrain from “Come, Come Ye Saints,” only she changed it from “All is well, all is well,” to “Egad, all is bad.” But she and the daughter made it safely, and she lived another thirty years in feisty independence.
From this cemetery (which is 90 miles from our home) we drive to another one 45 miles away. Here we have my husband’s parents, his father’s first wife who died young, and two of his older half brothers. They are all in a row, so I bend and drop our cut flowers, usually irises, but some years also peonies and roses, in each metal vase as we walk down the row, and my husband fixes pots of chrysanthemums on the verge of each stone. My sister-in-law plunks down her little jelly glasses full of pansies that she has plucked that morning. We stand back and admire the flowers. We exclaim in consternation when we realize that the two brothers, both veterans of World War II and the Korean War, do not have flags on their graves as my father-in-law, a veteran of World War I, does. Why were they missed? They have military stones with their ranks and everything on them. The cemetery changed hands from a local family to a national company two years ago. We lament the lower quality of care this cemetery is getting now.
Our last stop is another hour away, a cemetery on the outskirts of a small mountain town. It is always decorated so densely that my mother calls it the Flower Show. Here we have my husband’s other grandparents, and the maiden aunt who helped to raise him and who helped bring the two of us together. There is also her little sister, who died at the age of two weeks back in the early years of the twentieth century when there was nothing that could be done for babies with certain defects. Further down the row on the other side lie this grandmother’s parents, emigrants from Scotland in the early 1850s.
The Scottish grandfather was a successful miner as well as a sheep man, and his headstone is very ornate to reflect his prosperity, I suppose. It is a source of frustration to me that the way it faces makes it possible to take a beautifully clear photograph of his side, but the other side with his wife’s information is always shadowed and I never have been successful in getting a clear picture of that side. I have tried the strategic use of flash, but I haven’t gotten it to work right yet. Either it washes out all definition, or if I aim to the side to make shadows, too much of the wording goes blurry. One of these years I’ll be lucky or maybe I’ll learn how to take pictures in more difficult conditions. Maybe someone will tell me what I’m doing wrong.
It’s a very long day when we do all three cemeteries. Usually we break them up, as I said. This year we did only the first two because of our unusually long cold spell this spring: Monday has to be dedicated to putting the plants in our garden because it’s supposed to be good weather. I think the kindred dead will not mind. They were attuned to the weather in their day too.