The piney roses (peonies) always seem to bloom on Memorial Day, just as Grandma's graveyard rose bursts into flower at that time. It is a true heirloom rose that she brought back from Muddelty, Nicholas County, when they settled here. These were the flowers we used to decorate the graves in the family cemetery each year.
We called it Decoration Day, and when we were small, we really didn't know what the day signified. It was a happy time for us as we made a trip to the family cemetery where we met other members of the Samples family and played with our countless cousins. Like so many family cemeteries here in the hills, it was situated high on the point of a hill, overlooking Big Laurel Creek.
The winding path down the crest of the hill was bordered by masses of mountain laurel, its pinkish-white blossoms reaching out to our eager hands. Underfoot, green moss grew thick, and clumps of ferns waved their lacy fronds aloft. The path was lined with pines trees and always seemed cool.
Our cemetery was the most pleasant place you could imagine. Surrounded by tall trees and thickly populated by forever-green hemlocks, it was moss-covered and beautiful. The cemetery itself was level and shaded by leafy trees that provided cool shade and a place to spread our tablecloths. My earliest childhood memories of Memorial Day are happy ones: family love and the joyful companionship of cousins. I remember feeling a pang of sorrow at the tiny infant graves of baby cousins who had passed away years before, but no real grief marred the day for our youthful hearts.
We decorated Grandma Samples' grave (a grandmother we never knew, as she died years before we were born.) Then we decorated Grandpa Hooge's grave, who died when I was a young girl. He was a saintly old man with a halo of white hair and a snowy beard, and I remember crying bitterly when he died. There are faint recollections of a little log cabin down over the hill where he lived alone and of the loving kindness he showed us when we visited. However, sorrow sits lightly on the heart of a child, and death is an unfathomable mystery.
When I was 17, my beloved Grandpa O'Dell, a grandfather who had lived with us for as long as I could remember, died. There was a sense of loss so keen it is with me still today. Death and grief had become real to me. Since that time, we have seen many of our loved ones go to their long home. The older we get, the more friends and loved ones we see "pass from this stage of action" as Daddy used to say. "We are going down the valley one by one . . ."
Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was then called, was originally a day to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. We feel a human need to honor the dead, and there is evidence that a women's group in the South decorated graves before the end of the Civil War. In 1971, it officially became a federal holiday. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials, holding family gatherings or participating in parades. It has become a day to honor any and all dead. Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season.
Memorial Day is not limited to honor only those Americans who died in service to their country. It is also a day for personal remembrance. Families and individuals honor the memories of their loved ones who have died. Church services, visits to the cemetery, placing flowers on graves or even a silent tribute mark the day with dignity and solemnity. It is a day of reflection.
It was always a country custom for families to gather at the cemetery where their loved ones were buried in order to clean off the graves and decorate with fresh flowers. They would pack a picnic lunch and reminisce together and keep the family bonds tightly intertwined. I thought at one time that this was just a nice custom, but I realize now that it is a nurturing of the family that is left.
May 30 has a special meaning to me. It was on this date in 1953 that we received the news that Myles Mullins was killed in action in Korea. We were down on Big Laurel Creek, fishing and picnicking. The water honeysuckle was in bloom, and we had gathered branches of the fragrant, white blossoms. The haunting scent of water honeysuckle will forever be entwined in my heart with war and death and heartsickness. His grave rests high in the hills he loved so much, and while I have grown old and gray, he will be forever 18.
FREEDOM IS NOT FREE
By Kelly Strong
I watched the flag pass by one day.
It fluttered in the breeze.
A young Marine saluted it,
And then he stood at ease.
I looked at him in uniform
So young, so tall, so proud,
He'd stand out in any crowd.
I thought how many men like him
Had fallen through the years.
How many died on foreign soil?
How many mothers' tears?