Memorial Day Memories have Pre-War Roots

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In many families -- including mine -- Decoration Day is a time to remember every loved one who has died, not just in war.

Each year for as long as I can remember, time has stopped for a few hours every spring, in the week before the end of May.

That's when the women in my family get together a roadside flower stand in Portage County. We scrutinize rows of pink and red geraniums, yellow mums, variegated petunias and trailing green vinca vines. It's an art I learned from Ruth Winning's daughters -- my mother and aunts. You want a few flowers, but mostly buds that will bloom in the weeks after we've all gone back to our normal, disconnected lives. Those bursts of color that bear witness to anyone looking: These are our VIPS, our beloveds; still remembered.

I didn't know my grandmother. But when she handled Decoration Day duties, the afternoon also included lunch at the graves.

At Cleveland's Lake View Cemetery, the grave-side lunches still exist. Mary Krohmer, who works there, sees them in the springtime when harried commuters come by with their sandwiches for a moment of workday peace. She also sees them at the cemetery's yearly Memorial Day event. She says it's a tradition evolved from Decoration day that's as old as the Greeks, and flourished in the Victorian era.

(Krohmer:) "Every Sunday, everybody would get up and go to church, they'd come back home and pack a picnic and they would go to cemeteries and visit all their family members, and just almost carry on a conversation with family members, continuing their life and what was going on with the family's life after they had passed away."

A Union Army general declared May 5 as the time to honor Civil War dead. The South went their own way until after World War I, when most people settled on May 30th. President Lyndon Johnson later declared the federal holiday - what we now call Memorial Day - for the last Monday in May.

Even in a time of war, Memorial Day now is often celebrated as the official start or summer -- or just a bonus sunny day away from work.

Still, for lots of people Memorial Day and Decoration Day are days for respect, love and little dirt under the fingernails.

And this long holiday weekend, Aunt Shirley and I are among them -- picking through the begonias.

Kymberli Hagelberg, 90.3

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