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Decoration Day

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” wrote Cicero. My family had both.

Part of what I want to accomplish with this blog is to revisit the Edens of my childhood and remember the strengths, gifts, and trainings I received from my wonderful extended family, all of whom were dedicated gardeners, readers, and reciters of poetry.

On this Memorial Day here in the US, I think of all those who have died for our freedoms. May we never take them for granted. On this day, too, my mind takes me back to an old name for the day: Decoration Day, traditionally celebrated on May 31.

My grandparents grew both vegetables and flowers in a half-acre garden they worked every morning as soon as it was light enough to tell a weed from a petunia. They put on their gardening shoes and straw hats and set off across what used to be the croquet court to do the day’s work. Grandma picked the day’s vegetables and flowers, and after Grandpa ran the little garden tractor between the rows, he sliced out with his hoe the few weeds that dared to appear within the rows. After the work was done, he cleaned, sharpened, and polished the hoe before putting it back into the can of oil where it resided.

They planned all year for Decoration Day to have flowers blooming at the right time. Grandpa always planted lavender phlox to make sure it was in full glory. The blue and purple irises and pink peonies could always be depended upon to burst forth exactly in the last week of May. The peonies were always swarmed with ants. The (since disputed) theory was that somehow, the ants helped the peony buds to open.

Grandpa always got up early on Decoration Day to pick and arrange the flowers in carefully washed mayonnaise jars that had been saved throughout the year just for the occasion. The jars were filled with water and carefully arranged in boxes in the trunk of the car, along with a picnic lunch.

We set off for the country cemeteries where our forbears were buried: Prairie Chapel, Sunnyside, Laurel Oak, Ionia, Harmony, and Mount Olivet. As we placed the flowers on the graves, my grandparents (and great-grandparents when they were alive) told the old family stories, most of them humorous. Who did this, and who said that, what quirks so-and-so exhibited, who read Paradise Lost as he walked behind the mule that pulled the plow.

They day seemed always warm and humid, and I remember the sound of the prairie wind through the trees and tall grasses. How lonely it must have been to have lived in such isolated places with only horses for transportation to a small town miles away.

The saddest stop was Baby Fern’s grave, Great-grandmother Thomas’s first baby who died at six months. For a young farm couple, life was hard enough with all the plowing, building the house, cooking, canning, boiling and starching the laundry, drying the fruit under mesh on top of the hen house. Such energy they had all their lives.

On the way there and back on country roads we sang the old tunes we’d learned from The Golden Book of Favorite Songs, with Mama doing the harmony.

Back home in high spirits, tired but happy. Respects and homage properly paid. 

Time for napping. Time to think about the next day in a June garden. “What is so rare as a day in June? For then, if ever, come perfect days…” 


1 Fran aka Redondowriter { 05.27.08 at 12:37 am }

A very fitting memorial, Ellen. We always went to the one cemetery where my grandparents were buried and now my parents, but I don’t visit there often anymore. We called it Decoration Day, too.

Keep posting to the blog, Ellen. It’s so good to see you back.

2 Janet Riehl { 05.08.10 at 2:02 pm }


My great grandfather raised peonies to sell for Decoration Day. One year when they bloomed in time for Mother’s Day, it was a great financial loss for the family.

I, too, recall journeys to the graveyard with peonies transported in big tin milk cans. This was a wonderful family time as you describe so well. We also sang in the car. Good memories, all.

Janet Riehl

3 Janet Riehl { 05.08.10 at 2:03 pm }


If you don’t already know about Story Circle Network–an organization for women who write memoir, I think you’d really like it.

Janet Riehl
.-= Janet Riehl´s last blog ..Collective Motherhood – The Historical Recipe to Peace, by Ernest Dempsey =-.

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