Celebrating Memorial Day – Small Town Edition

Macks Creek Cemetery Armed Forces Monument

By:  Jeannie Wilcox, KCH Sr. Communications Manager

Grief is a funny thing.

Not as in – that made me LOL – but as in, “Wow, I’m always surprised by how it hangs around.”

Does it hit you like that too? 

This time of year is always a doozie – the anniversary of the date my mom died. The anniversary of the date my brother died. Mother’s Day. Next month, Dad’s Day. The two worst days of the year (in my humble opinion), once your parents are dead…In other words, the hits just keep hitting.

And also – Memorial Day. For 18+ years – my sister and I were the designated attendees with our mom to the small, country cemetery where our grandparents and sundry other relatives are buried. 

It was a precious time (especially now, upon reflection) – when my mom shared stories about these relatives we literally heard no other time of the year. This cousin? He was a lineman and electrocuted on the job. That great-grandma? She was 100% Cherokee. That great aunt? She’s who taught our mom to make fried pies. All the best stories and some long-buried family secrets came out on that headstone-covered hill once a year while we carefully placed flowers on the graves of our family members.

It’s the place I first learned my parents had another baby – a child, like so many people in the 50s – who was born with some health condition and died shortly after birth, while still in the hospital. IMAGINE – I thought to myself as a five or six-year-old – I had another brother. I think about it every time we visit the cemetery. Imagine our already chaotic home of five kids being even more chaotic with one more boy. How glorious that would have been.

Fast forward many years and for proximity reasons, it was just my mom and me who visited the cemetery every Memorial Day and then on my dad’s birthday after he died. The stories – just as wonderful. Often repeated from year to year, always colorful, sometimes surprising…did I know those two ladies we always called aunts weren’t really our aunts, our grandma just reared them because their mom died? NOPE – didn’t know that, Mom. The stories poured out and I tucked them away in my brain because I knew nobody else was hearing them. 

And then came 2005 – my mom died.

And I was the sole “heir-apparent” for tending to the cemetery at Memorial Day and throughout the year. No one else in our family went to our hometown regularly. And if they had…they didn’t know where ‘our people’ were buried on that grassy knoll. It was up to my (then new) husband
and me.

In addition to buying the perfect silk flowers to honor our family members, there was one more dilemma to solve, a secret my mom had taken to her grave. At small-town cemeteries on Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as they call it), they collect donations to maintain the grounds throughout the year. So everyone who visits and ‘decorates’ the graves signs a roster (AKA a yellow legal pad) and leaves a check, literally in this case puts the check in a giant, empty cheese ball container – I’m not even kidding. The dilemma for me was: I didn’t know how much the check should be. I didn’t want to be the big-city Morris-girl dropping big dollars on the cemetery fund and trying to act all flashy. ON THE OTHER HAND, I also didn’t want to be the girl who had a dozen family members buried there who didn’t know enough to donate enough to cover the yearly mowing (or however often they mow) and maintenance.

I even wasted time going through my mom’s canceled checks – that’s how badly I wanted to GET THIS RIGHT – to see if I could see how much she donated every year. I never saw the cleared checks. So after much discussion with my husband, we took a leap of faith, wrote a check and we’ve stuck with the amount ever since. They welcome us back every year; apparently we nailed the amount.

We’ve also never missed a year of decorating the graves.

Even if – the rare year comes around that we’re traveling someplace else during the Memorial Day holiday, we decorate the graves early. And – because he’s the kind of guy he is – my husband goes along every year. AND – he asks the best questions, says the best things, like, “Now is this the grandpa who smoked unfiltered Camels?” “Is this the grandma who tried so hard to teach you and your sister to crochet?” “I really wish I’d met your dad.”

And because I’m me, I tell the same stories my mom used to tell, “Have I mentioned, these ladies aren’t REALLY my aunts?” as I’m placing flowers on their graves anyway – because nonetheless, my dad grew up with them like sisters. And “Did I tell you this lady taught my mom to make fried pies? Thank goodness for her.” 

One of the best parts of the country cemetery is the monument at the entrance, commemorating all the servicewomen and men who are buried there, my dad included. They also place a flag on their graves. We stop and read the plaques at each grave we run into that mention the names and ranks and the branch of service in which they served. It’s an old cemetery and the history is rich. I love that they keep this tradition of honoring veterans alive.

Memorial Day means a lot of different things to many different people. 

For me, for us, you’ll find us this Memorial Day up on the quietest hill in Camden County, MO. With the prettiest silk flowers I could find. Repeating – to the most patient guy on the planet – the stories I’ve been hearing since I was a little girl. It’s one way I remember; it’s one way I honor and commemorate some of my most important people. Because my grief, even 20+ years later, is alive and well. But THANKFULLY – so is this time-honored tradition to help remember and honor those who have died.

4 Comments

  1. Judi Purcell on May 23, 2024 at 4:06 pm

    Jeannie – That was a beautiful story of the special people in your life whose memories are cherished. May this year be a warm remembrance as you visit the cemetery of your loved ones.

  2. Rebecca Lane on May 23, 2024 at 5:41 pm

    I love that you honor your mom’s tradition and her memory, along with all the others who made you the fabulous person you are!

  3. Christie Cochran on May 24, 2024 at 12:55 am

    Thank you for taking us along on your most precious journey: Memorial Day! Oh how I long for more stories, such as yours! I do have one more chance to listen and learn before the last connection passes on to Heaven.
    Your “Gift” of expressing words that intrigue us to keep on reading is exactly that: a gift. Please never stop writing. KCH is lucky to have a talented human being to help us ease our way through life at its hardest moments.

  4. David Wiley on May 24, 2024 at 7:21 am

    Thank you for sharing this heartwarming part of your story. The tradition is so kind and I’m sure your Mom is so very proud.

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