In Milan, the whole community rallies for Memorial Day.
The Edison High School Marching Band lines up in the town square. Baton twirlers, scout troops, and veterans. Fire trucks and police cars with whirling lights. Eager children on bikes decorated in red, white, and blue.
The whistle blasts. They’re off, parading to the cemetery for a ceremony and then back.
The holiday was commonly called Decoration Day when I was growing up. Placing flowers on the graves of relatives was another kind of celebration. A devoted family patriotism.
For years, we drove from Ohio to my grandparents’ Illinois farm to prepare for the all-day event.
My job involved gathering a dozen coffee cans from the shed and covering each in foil to hide labels and rust. Granny Jewel saved the ribbon from gifts all year for this occasion, and I tied bows around each container. I knew my effort was important.
Meanwhile, my mother scoured the yard for flowers, which usually meant peonies and lilacs with cedar branches as filler.
With a bucket to carry water from the cemetery pumps, we set off in Grandpa Dude’s Plymouth. I crouched in the backseat, keeping the cans upright on those bumpy dirt roads. We decorated graves in several small towns, but mostly we traveled the Crawford County countryside. Because many of the rural churches had been gone for decades, my mother drove by heart to clustered pine trees, collapsing wire fences, consecutive twists and turns through abandoned fields to their remaining cemeteries.
A slow parade of dusty cars bounced along those backroads. We all carried flower-filled cans. We all remembered the way.
While the adults visited quietly, I sat in the shade and wondered over these generations of relatives I never knew. My mother cried softly by certain headstones. I never asked why. With no one looking, I’d slip a flower from one of our bouquets and place it on a stone in an undecorated section. I thought someone ought to remember the souls beneath the time-tilted marble and granite.
Now my grandparents and parents are buried back there, too. It would be a long drive from here. So I declared my own Decoration Day and placed a foil-covered can of pink peonies (borrowed from our neighbors Rob and Beth) on a Milan grave in an old, flowerless section. The weathered letters read:
My Father PR Hopkins
Died Aug. 6, 1856
My Mother Mary Hopkins
Died March 24, 1860
No, they aren’t my family, but they’re someone’s. And for one day, they were remembered and honored with flowers.
Even as a child, I understood that mattered.