Memories of Memorial Days spent planting flowers at cemetery
To some people, Memorial Day means a trip to the beach, a day of fishing, the smell of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill, and the taste of cold beer. Being that I was a child of dark thoughts (not dangerous by any means, just … you know … dark), Memorial Day holds memories for me that are nowhere near any of the above. Not even close.
Memorial Day reminds me of spending the entire morning at the cemetery. It wasn’t because I was some budding Gothic freak. It was because of a tradition that remains quite popular in the Northeast – the tradition of planting flowers at the gravesites of family members. This was especially popular with Italian-Americans. And Memorial Day was the day to do it.
My Uncle Tony used to be the family cornerstone of this exhausting exercise. My father assisted. Me, my brother Tom and my cousin Ricky just goofed around, doing the usual kid stuff: looking inside the iron-gated windows of weather-worn mausoleums, running between gravestones. Stuff like that.
Back then, the gravesites for our family numbered 10 or so. And it wasn’t a matter of just planting a flower. No! The dirt had to be dug up and tilled with a small hand shovel while down on your knees. The dead flowers from the previous year needed to be removed. Then came the fertilizer and then the peat moss. Then new flowers were planted and nestled with a fresh blanket of peat moss. The flower beds were full and filled with new life. Ah … perfection!
Soon after my Uncle Tony died suddenly at 47 from an aneurysm in 1969, my father carried the tradition of planting the flowers. Now it was just me and my brother with our father, so we had the job of gathering water in the planters. The water faucets always seemed to be so far from whatever graveside we were at. But even so, my brother and I found time to act like some spastic Jerry Lewis offspring while my father sweated over the flower beds.
One time (I think I was 12 years old), I happened to come across a gravestone that had the names and birthdates of an aunt and uncle of mine, who were both alive. How could that be, I wondered? They’re not even dead. I ran to ask my father what the story was. Why would someone buy a gravestone and a plot before they were needed? How ghoulish, I thought.
Speaking of ghoulish, one of my fondest memories of Memorial Day weekend (now, remember, I said I was a child of dark thoughts), was driving my Aunt Mary to the cemetery to prepare the flower beds of a few graves that my father couldn’t get around to one year. I was 17, I believe. By that time, my thoughts had become even darker and more imaginative, laced by an even darker sense of humor.
My aunt was deathly afraid of critters. You know, beetles, spiders, snakes, mice, rats. Things like that. When I was a little boy, I used to put rubber critters on her purse or on her coat as they lay on my parents’ bed. (Visiting relatives always used to place their garments on my parents’ or grandmother’s bed.) She’d scream like a B-grade actress out of a Vincent Price movie. I’d laugh like a child born of the devil. What a gas, man.
I couldn’t wait ’til the next time she’d visit us. “Hey, Mom, when’s Aunt Mary comin’ over again?” I’d ask just about every other week. My mother would just look at me. “I don’t know. Maybe next Saturday night. But don’t you scare her again, Johnny.” A smile would then twist and mold the bottom of my face to the point of distortion. “Oh no. I won’t. Promise, Mom.”
So, what did I do on that one Memorial Day that remains so fond to me? When Aunt Mary turned her back to me on her knees to get a flower from one of the pots? I took advantage of the opportunity and put a large rubber rat on the flower bed that she was working on, and a giant plastic tarantula on top of the gravestone.
When she turned back to the flower bed, she first saw the spider. Scream number one. The flower and garden shovel went flying. Then she saw the rat. Scream number two. “Wow!” I thought, the next thing I would see was people rising from the graves and running like angels out of Hell. What a scream!
But I wasn’t through yet. Not this bored, angst-ridden teenager. The skies were starting to cloud over with darkened pillows. A small rumble of thunder. Oh, boy! This is great! I had to. I just had to. Just one more zinger! Oh how I love Memorial Day. How I love cemeteries!!!”
We got into the car. It was my father’s car I was using. I turned the key in the ignition just enough to get a sound, but then I stopped it short. My aunt looked at me. I did it again. “John?” A look of worry washed over her face. “What’s the matter?” I gave the key one more partial turn. “I can’t believe this, Aunt Mary. It must be the battery.”
Thunder rolls again. The skies grew darker. This was back in the days before cell phones, so she wouldn’t have that luxury at hand. No one … No one could save her. Now her look of worry turned to terror. “What do we do now?” I got out of the car and lifted the hood, all the while a swell of diabolical laughter was erupting in me like flames from an inferno.
I couldn’t hold it any more. The laughter poured out of me like lava from a volcano, hot, non-stop and laded with malice. I’m lucky I made it out of there alive. I’m lucky to still be alive. I thought my aunt was going to bury me alive among the dead, with no flowers to mark my grave.
Anyway, to my surprise (for real), my aunt never asked me to drive her to the cemetery again. Too bad. I had so much fun. And that wonderfully memorable and thoughtful tradition of planting flowers at family gravesites on Memorial Day has died now that my father has Parkinson’s disease and can no longer kneel or hold a shovel firmly in his hands.
No one else in our family ever wanted to be saddled with that responsibility. None of our relatives anyway. And it is a big responsibility. I guess if I ever end up back East one of these days, that I will assume the role, breathe life into the heritage, the tradition, the responsibility. If my Aunt Mary ever heard me say this, she’d laugh. Then she’d kill me.
n John DiMambro is publisher of the Nevada Appeal. Write to him at email@example.com.