Tag Archive | grandma

The Missing History of Decoration Day

Memorial day is not about the living

Today isn’t the day to say ‘Thank you for your service.’

Once again it’s Memorial Day, and once again I find myself having conflicting feelings. There is, of course, the part of me that gets irritated at how so many people treat every even slightly patriot holiday as another occurrence of Veteran’s Day. And that’s wrong for many reasons. If nothing else, if someone is a military veteran or still serving, this day can be extremely emotional day, because they may be thinking about people they knew who didn’t make it back

If you aren’t sure what to say today, NPR has some suggestions: Don’t Say ‘Thank You For Your Service’ This Monday.

The other set of feelings I get revolve around the revisionist history everyone publishes about the history of Memorial Day. Memorial Day didn’t become an official holiday until the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968. You’ll find scores of articles and web pages telling how the Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day (true), which was first celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868 (false). Decoration Day was celebrated in several parts of the country, mostly in the South, long before the Civil War.

Leading up to Decoration Day, volunteers from the community would cut the grass in the cemetery and pull up weeds and generally do maintenance. In modern times, city and county governments take care of cemeteries that are not maintained by a company or a religious organization, so we don’t think about things like the grass and weeds around grave. Then come Sunday was the day to bring flowers to put on the graves, have family reunions, and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members. My Grandmother observed that version faithfully her whole life. ‘Decoration Day’: The South Honors Its Dead.

“…on that day, everybody who’s connected to each other and to the people underground convene and have in effect a religious service in the cemetery.”
—Alan Jabbour, the author of the book Decoration Day in the Mountains

As I said, Grandma celebrated the old version her whole life, and she was literally in the process of placing a silk flower arrangement on the grave of Great-aunt Maude (and pulling up some crab grass that was obscuring the marker) when she died. So you may understand while I have strong feelings about the missing history of Decoration Day.

Anyway, for Grandma (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):

Memorial, part 2

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers for Grandma’s grave.

Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1868, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.

I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.

Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.

She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) on the Friday before Memorial Day, 2007 when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.

One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t grandpa’s grave nearby?”

Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.

Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.

Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.

The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers from us, Mom, and my Aunt Silly on Grandpa’s grave.

Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.

Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.

We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.

I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.

Grandma’s been gone for more than 10 years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter


Flowers from Mom and I on Grandpa's grave this year.

Flowers from Mom and I on Grandpa’s grave this year.

And if you are one of those people offended if I don’t mention people who served our country in the armed forces on this day, please note that we also put flowers on my Grandpa’s grave. Grandpa served in WWII in Italy. He didn’t drive a tank, he drove the vehicle that towed tanks that couldn’t be repaired in the field, and one of the two medals he was awarded in the war was for doing a repair of a tank while under fire. After the war, he came back to the U.S., met Grandma (who was at that point working as a nurse and trying to support her two daughters), and eventually married Grandma and adopted my mom and my aunt. Many years later, he was the person who taught me how to rebuild a carburetor (among other things). He was a hero many times over. And this post is also dedicated to his memory.

Traditionally once known as Decoration Day, or Memorial for Grandma

Long before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 made Memorial Day an official federal holiday, and even before the first federal observation of a day to decorate Union Soldier’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery back in 1868, and even before the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia suggested a day to honor those who died in the Civil War there was another holiday called Decoration Day observed in many parts of the country. It was a day to have family reunions and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members.

As one historical society defined it: “Decoration Day is an annual observance at many privately owned graveyards during which families gather to clean up the graveyard, reconnect with family, and honor the memories of their ancestors… Traditionally, Decoration Day is in part a ritual, with families arriving on the day before Decoration Sunday with hoes and shovels for a graveyard workday. They scrape the ground, trim the grass, make new plantings, and prune old ones… The cleanup is followed by a Sunday picnic dinner, singing in church, placing flowers on graves, and visiting with friends and family. Sunday participants come dressed for church and participate in what amounts to a family and community reunion. Family members that have moved away often return on this day, giving them an important opportunity to teach children about their ancestors and the communities in which they once lived. Outdoor tables of concrete or wood, marked to identify participating churches, hold the food for the meal.”

It was usually observed on a Sunday in the spring, and frequently involved picnics in the cemeteries or potlucks at church. my Grandmother was someone who observed that version faithfully her whole life, long before the official creation of the modern Memorial Day.

Twelve years ago this week my nice Grandma died literally while in the middle of putting silk flowers on the grave of one of my great aunts—which has contributed to my determination that the original holiday not be forgotten. In memory of Grandma, I’m reposting this (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):

Memorial, part 2—for Grandma

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers for Grandma’s grave.

Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1868, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.

I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.

Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.

She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) on the Friday before Memorial Day when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.

One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t Grandpa’s grave nearby?”

Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.

Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.

Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.

The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers from us, Mom, and my Aunt Silly on Grandpa’s grave.

Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.

Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.

We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.

I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.

Grandma’s been gone for seven years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter


It is still the case that when I drive to that part of the state to visit Mom or other relatives, I still find myself wondering what Grandma will be doing when I get there, and a moment later have a sudden resurgence of the old grief, remembering that she’s gone.

If you are one of those people offended if I don’t mention people who served our country in the armed forces on this day, please note that my Grandpa mentioned above served in WWII in Italy. Grandpa drove the vehicle that towed tanks that couldn’t be repaired in the field, and one of the two medals he was awarded in the war was for doing a repair of a tank while under fire. After the war, he came back to the U.S., met Grandma (who was at that point working as a nurse and trying to support her two daughters), and eventually married Grandma and adopted my mom and my aunt. Many years later, he was the person who taught me how to rebuild a carburetor (among other things). He was a hero many times over. My paternal Grandfather served in both World War II and the Korean War. Several of my great-aunts and uncles and many cousins who are no longer alive served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

This post is dedicated to all of their memories. They are all on my mind today, as well as other loved ones who have passed. I grieve for them, yes, but I don’t believe today should only be about grief. We should celebrate the lives of those who came before us. Remember their joys and their triumphs, as well as their sacrifices. That’s what Grandma taught me to do, and I will keep doing it on this day, as long as I draw breath.

Formerly known as Decoration Day, or Memorial for Grandma

My aunt sent me this picture of the flowers she put on Grandma's grave this year.

My aunt sent me this picture of the flowers she put on Grandma’s grave this year.

I’ve written many times before about why Memorial Day shouldn’t be confused or conflated with Veteran’s Day — and I am hardly the only person to draw attention to that distinction (Washington Post: Why Memorial Day is different from Veterans Day, CNN: Get it straight: The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Washington Examiner: Why you shouldn’t confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day NPR: Memorial Day Dos and Don’ts.

Long before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 made Memorial Day an official federal holiday, and even before the first federal observation of a day to decorate Union Soldier’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery back in 1868, and even before the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia suggested a day to honor those who died in the civil war there was another holiday observed in many parts of the country—long before the Civil War—called Decoration Day, which was a day to have family reunions and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members. It was usually observed on a Sunday in the spring, and frequently involved picnics in the cemeteries or potlucks at church. And my Grandmother was someone who observed that version faithfully her whole life, long before the official creation of the modern Memorial Day.

Eleven years ago this week my nice Grandma died literally while in the middle of putting silk flowers on the grave of one of my great aunts—which has contributed to my determination that the original holiday not be forgotten. In memory of Grandma, I’m reposting this (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):

Memorial, part 2

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers for Grandma’s grave.

Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1868, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.

I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.

Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.

She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) seven years ago on the Friday before Memorial Day when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.

One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t grandpa’s grave nearby?”

Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.

Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.

Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.

The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers from us, Mom, and my Aunt Silly on Grandpa’s grave.

Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.

Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.

We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.

I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.

Grandma’s been gone for seven years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter


And if you are one of those people offended if I don’t mention people who served our country in the armed forces on this day, please note that my Grandpa mentioned above served in WWII in Italy. Grandpa drove the vehicle that towed tanks that couldn’t be repaired in the field, and one of the two medals he was awarded in the war was for doing a repair of a tank while under fire. After the war, he came back to the U.S., met Grandma (who was at that point working as a nurse and trying to support her two daughters), and eventually married Grandma and adopted my mom and my aunt. Many years later, he was the person who taught me how to rebuild a carburetor (among other things). He was a hero many times over. And this post is also dedicated to his memory.

It used to be called Decoration Day… (or, Memorial for Grandma)

I’ve written before about why Memorial Day shouldn’t be confused or conflated with Veteran’s Day — and I am hardly the only person to draw attention to that distinction (Washington Post: Why Memorial Day is different from Veterans Day, CNN: Get it straight: The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Washington Examiner: Why you shouldn’t confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day NPR: Memorial Day Dos and Don’ts.

Flowers from Mom, my sister, and I  on the grave this year for Grandma and our step-grandpa.

Flowers from Mom, my sister, and I on the grave this year for Grandma and our step-grandpa.

Some of those articles mention the original holiday, but they get one bit wrong. Before the first official federal observation of a Memorial Day, at Arlington National Cemetery back in 1868, there was another holiday observed in many parts of the country—long before the Civil War—called Decoration Day, which was a day to have family reunions and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members. My Grandmother observed that version faithfully her whole life, long before the official creation of the modern Memorial Day with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968.

Grandma died exactly ten years ago last week, and it still hurts to think about. The fact that she was putting flowers on the grave of another beloved family member when she died just makes me even more of an adamant defender of the original, non-jingoistic, non-warmongering version of the holiday. But rather than rant about that, I should post about my grandmother, a wonderful woman who taught me so much.

So, for Grandma (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):

Memorial, part 2

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers for Grandma’s grave.

Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1868, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.

I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.

Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.

She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) seven years ago on the Friday before Memorial Day when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.

One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t grandpa’s grave nearby?”

Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.

Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.

Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.

The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers from us, Mom, and my Aunt Silly on Grandpa’s grave.

Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.

Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.

We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.

I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.

Grandma’s been gone for seven years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter


Flowers from Mom and I on Grandpa's grave this year.

Flowers from Mom and I on Grandpa’s grave this year.

And if you are one of those people offended if I don’t mention people who served our country in the armed forces on this day, please note that we also put flowers on my Grandpa’s grave. Grandpa served in WWII in Italy. He didn’t drive a tank, he drove the vehicle that towed tanks that couldn’t be repaired in the field, and one of the two medals he was awarded in the war was for doing a repair of a tank while under fire. After the war, he came back to the U.S., met Grandma (who was at that point working as a nurse and trying to support her two daughters), and eventually married Grandma and adopted my mom and my aunt. Many years later, he was the person who taught me how to rebuild a carburetor (among other things). He was a hero many times over. And this post is also dedicated to his memory.

Memorials, reposting

I noticed this morning on the Washington Post web site that Valerie Strauss has republished the article she’s been publishing for a few years now on both Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day: Why Memorial Day is different from Veterans Day. And while I am all for any effort to prevent people from turning every single even moderately patriotic holiday into a variant of Veteran’s Day, I have a quibble.

She leaves out the fact that before the first official federal observation of a Memorial Day, at Arlington National Cemetery back in 1868, there was another holiday observed in many parts of the country—long before the Civil War—called Decoration Day, which was a day to have family reunions and celebrate the lives of all of our deceased family members. And my Grandmother was someone who observed that version faithfully her whole life, long before the official creation of the modern Memorial Day with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968.

I tried to simply reblog the earlier entry, but apparently because it has been reblogged by myself before, WordPress won’t let me. So I’ll republish the entire thing below. If you don’t want to read about me and my mom crying at Grandma’s grave, you can skip to my post about my absent-minded coffee cup issues from earlier today: A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup… boy! instead.

Anyway, for Grandma (originally posted on Memorial Day 2014):

Memorial, part 2

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers for Grandma’s grave.

Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1868, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.

I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.

Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.

She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) seven years ago on the Friday before Memorial Day when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.

One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t grandpa’s grave nearby?”

Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.

Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.

Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.

The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers from us, Mom, and my Aunt Silly on Grandpa’s grave.

Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.

Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.

We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.

I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.

Grandma’s been gone for seven years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter

Memorial, part 2

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers for Grandma’s grave.

Grandma always called it by the older name, Decoration Day. As I’ve written before, the original holiday was celebrated in many states as a day to gather at the grave sites of your parents, grandparents, et cetera, to honor the memory of their lives. It was often a time of picnics and family reunions. At least as much a celebration of their lives as a time of mourning. The connection to military deaths didn’t happen until 1866, and particularly in the south, was often seen as a pro-Union, pro-war, anti-southern celebration.

I didn’t understand most of those nuances when I was a kid. The modern version of the holiday, celebrated on the last Monday in May, didn’t even exist until I was a fifth-grader, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect.

Grandma observed it faithfully. Every year, as May rolled around, she would begin calling distant relatives and old family friends. Grandma knew where just about every person descended from her own grandparents was buried, and she made certain that someone who lived nearby was putting flowers on the graves of those relatives by Memorial Day. She took care of all the family members buried within a couple hours drive of her home in southwest Washington.

She was putting flowers on the grave of my Great-aunt Maud (Grandma’s sister-in-law) seven years ago on the Friday before Memorial Day when she died. My step-grandfather said he was getting in position to take a picture of her beside the grave and the flowers (there are hundreds and hundreds of photos of Grandma beside graves with flowers on them in her photo albums) when she suddenly looked up, said, “I don’t feel good!” and pitched over.

One weekend she had blown out the candles on the cake celebrating her 84th birthday. The following Friday, while putting flowers on Great-aunt Maud’s grave, she died. And one week after that a bunch of us were standing at her graveside. It was just down to a few family members, and we were at that stage where you’re commenting on how pretty the flowers that so-and-so that no one had heard from in years were, when someone asked, “Isn’t grandpa’s grave nearby?”

Grandpa had died 23 years earlier, and was buried in one of a pair of plots he and Grandma had bought many years before. And after Grandma re-married, she and our step-grandfather had bought two more plots close by.

Anyway, as soon as someone asked that, my step-grandfather’s eyes bugged out, he went white as a sheet, and said, “Oh, no!” He was obviously very distressed as he hurried toward his car. Several of us followed, worried that he was having some sort of medical issue.

Nope. He and Grandma had been driving to various cemeteries all week long before her death, putting silk-bouquets that Grandma had made on each relative’s grave. Aunt Maud’s was meant to be the next-to-the-last stop on their journey. Grandpa’s silk flower bouquet was still in the trunk of the car. My step-grandfather was beside himself. He’d cried so much that week, you wouldn’t have thought he could cry any more, but there he was, apologizing to Grandma’s spirit for forgetting about the last batch of flowers, and not finishing her chore—for not getting flowers on Grandpa George’s grave by Memorial Day.

The next year, several of us had the realization that without Grandma around, none of us knew who to call to get flowers put on Great-grandma and Great-grandpa’s graves back in Colorado. None of us were sure in which Missouri town Great-great-aunt Pearl was buried, let alone who Grandma called every year to arrange for the flowers. Just as we weren’t certain whether Great-great-aunt Lou was buried in Kansas or was it Missouri? And so on, and so on. One of my cousins had to track down the incident report filed by the paramedics who responded to our step-grandfather’s 9-1-1 call just to find out which cemetery Great-aunt Maud was in.

copyright 2014 Gene Breshears

Flowers from us, Mom, and my Aunt Silly on Grandpa’s grave.

Mom and her sister have been putting flowers on Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves since. Our step-grandfather passed away three years after Grandma, and he was buried beside her.

Some years before her death, Grandma had transferred the ownership of the plot next to Grandpa to Mom. So Mom’s going to be buried beside her dad. Mom mentions it whenever we visit the graves, and I don’t know if she realizes how much it chokes me up to think about it.

We had put the flowers in place. We had both taken pictures. Mom always worries that she won’t remember where Grandpa’s grave is (it’s seared in my head: two rows down from Grandma, four stones to the south). Michael helped Mom take a wide shot picture that has both Grandma’s and Grandpa’s spots in it.

I thought we were going to get away with both of us only getting a little teary-eyeed a few times, but as we were getting back into the car, Mom started crying. Which meant that I lost it.

Grandma’s been gone for seven years, now. But every time we drive down to visit Mom, there is a moment on the drive when my mind is wandering, and I’ll wonder what Grandma will be doing when we get there. And then I remember I won’t be seeing her. It took me about a dozen years to stop having those lapses about Grandpa. I suspect it will be longer for Grandma. After all, she’s the one who taught me the importance of Those Who Matter

Grandmas who kick butt

Danielle Henderson has recently begun writing for Seattle’s The Stranger, and I really like her stuff. But on Valentine’s Day, thanks to a posting from Danielle to the Stranger’s newsblog, I became a total fanboy of Danielle’s 81-year-old grandmother, who is quoted twice in Danielle’s post in reaction to an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal written by Susan Patton. (Patton is the “Princeton Mom” who wrote the open-letter to women at the college advising them to be concerned about their “shelf life” as a desirable wife. Patton has since landed a book deal and gets asked to write for the Wall Street Journal, bless her heart.)

First, Danielle tells us the best advice she ever got from her grandmother:

“Don’t marry the first guy you have sex with, always make your own money, and for god’s sake get a f—ing education!”

Then, after reading an excerpt from Patton’s editorial, Dannielle’s grandmother’s reaction is:

“Who the hell wants to end up with a man that doesn’t want you because you’re smart? Don’t date dummies and you won’t have a problem.”

Someone needs to offer Danielle’s grandmother a book deal. I’d much rather read her advice than Patton’s.

You can read Danielle’s entire post about Patton’s latest drivel here.

Grandma’s chili, part 2

Grandma cutting up some tomatoes.

Grandma cutting up some tomatoes.

I mentioned the other day that I was planning to make chili for the Superbowl, and specifically to make my Grandma’s Chili. After posting my explanation about Grandma’s recipe, I wound up in several conversations with friends about my grandma’s way of cooking, and the nature of old family recipes. One friend had a great way to describe what I was trying to explain: for a lot of people, a recipe isn’t a list of ingredients in precise amounts, it’s a process.

Such a process recipe is my recollection of Grandpa’s cornbread. Approximately equal amounts of corn meal and flour, with some sugar, baking powder, salt, an egg or two (depending on how big a batch you’re making), some butter and some milk. Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly first, soften the butter, add the eggs, milk, and butter, blend. If the texture and thickness isn’t right, add some more cornmeal, or some more milk. Pour into a greased pan and bake about 20-25 minutes at 400-ish degrees.

Anyway… Read More…

Grandma’s chili, part 1

Grandma & me

Me and my maternal grandmother. I think I was four?

My maternal grandmother was an improvisational cook. If you asked her for a recipe, it was always a bit of a ramble. If you worked with her to make whatever it was, there was always a narrative that went with it, with frequent asides about alternate ingredients you could use if you didn’t have something, or if you wanted it to be a bit different.

Most of her recipes began with the sentence: “First, chop an onion.” Most of her childhood was in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, but she also lived in Texas at several points, and her accent sounded more coastal Texan than Missourian. Her oldest brother, who was born in Kansas, often teasingly called her the family’s Texan transplant. I have sometimes labeled homemade chili’s I’ve made from Grandma’s recipe as “Grandma’s Texas Chili,” because of this.

As I mentioned above, her recipes are never strict. I must have eaten her chili hundreds of times, and helped her cook it dozens of times, and I suspect that no two of them were ever exactly alike. Her chili recipe differed from her others because, it begins with, “While the bacon is cooking down, chop an onion and your peppers.”

Among all the variants of Grandma’s chili I ever had, the only three constants were: onions, beans, and bacon. Usually there were several kinds of peppers, but if she didn’t have peppers, she’d just sprinkle in some (or, depending on her mood, and whole lot of) cayenne or even paprika. She favored ground beef, but would substitute pork sausage, ground chicken, or sometimes chopped meatballs or even chopped bologna, if that’s what she had. There might be tomatoes, or not. Frequently the tomato component would be generous dollops of her homemade green tomato relish (which was always spicy), because she almost always had many jars of it in the pantry. Even if she didn’t cook the relish in the chili, she’d usually set out a jar so you could add some to your bowl to spice it up.

She wasn’t particular about the beans. When I was younger, she almost always started with dry beans that soaked overnight. Later she was more willing to use canned beans, since they were more convenient. Any beans would do. I remember more than once she used Van Camp’s Pork & Beans.

The basics of the recipe were:

  1. Cook some bacon until it is very crisp, set the bacon aside.
  2. Chop your onions and peppers up while the bacon is cooking. Saute the onions and peppers in the bacon grease.
  3. Add your meat. Yes, even if it is extremely non-lean hamburger, cook it in the bacon grease. The bacon is very important!
  4. Season liberally with salt. Optional spices to throw in while satueing include pepper, chili pepper, cayenne, paprika, garlic, or pickled hot vegetables.
  5. Add tomatoes or tomato relish or tomato sauce if you are doing tomatoes.
  6. Depending on how you’re doing the beans and what kind of pan you’re cooking the onion, peppers, either add the beans and some liquid to the pan, or start the beans cooking in a pot and add the meat, onions, et al, to them.
  7. Crumble up the bacon and stir it in.
  8. Get the chili to a boil for a while, tasting and adding seasoning, until everything tastes right.
  9. Serve with grated cheese if you have it, and/or green tomato relish, or some salsa, or…

I mention the hot pickled vegetables because she almost always had some of those around the house, too. I was one of the few members of the family who loved eating those as much as Grandma (later, when I started regularly making haberno salsa to bring to family dinners, Grandma always asked to take the leftover home, so I started bringing a separate container of it just for her to take). One time, when she didn’t have any fresh peppers and didn’t have any cayenne, she fished all the pickled peppers out of a jar of the hot veggies, and poured some of the hot pickle brine into the pan with the sauteing bits.

Even with the wildest substitutions, by the time Grandma was finished, it was always Grandma’s Chili. And it was always great.

I’ve only gone all out on Grandma’s Chili a few times in the seven years since she died. I make chili all the time, but it’s not Grandma’s. When making “ordinary” chili, I am as prone to substitutions as Grandma was, and almost never use bacon. When I make chili that I call Grandma’s Chili, I always soak beans overnight, spend too much time choosing bacon, always get some fresh peppers, and onion (usually a sweet one). I try to steer the taste to the milder end, since my husband (and most of our friends) can’t take the kind of chili that Grandma or I would call hot. Sometimes I make some haberno salsa for myself and the brave souls.

I didn’t pick up any really hot peppers. I stuck to mostly sweet ones, since as far as I know it will only be Michael and I eating my chili tomorrow while I watch the Superbowl.

I’ll post a follow-up on how it came out.

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