Editor's note: Portions of this column have been previously published.
It would be stretching things to suggest Memorial Day was Dad’s favorite holiday.
Truth be told, he was actually more of a Thanksgiving man. It was a day that called for lots of eating, shooting half-court set shots on the basketball court with the boys and giving long-winded prayers — all specialties of the house as far as Dad was concerned.
But Memorial Day also suited his particular style and talents. He was good at remembering the right flowers for all of the family graves we had to visit. He was good at remembering where all of those graves were — most of the time. He was good at remembering the distant aunts and uncles and cousins we bumped into at the various cemeteries we visited.
Mostly, he was good at remembering. He was the only member of his family who lived close to the family gravesites at the time, and he took his Memorial Day responsibilities to them all — the living and the dead — seriously. It was a priority, one that he never forgot until … well, it is one of the sad ironies of life that he eventually succumbed to a disease that made him forget all the stuff he used to be so good at remembering.
Of course, I was oblivious to such ironies when I was young. All I knew is that I was crammed into the back seat of our Impala with my cranky sisters and a bunch of smelly irises and lilacs (or was that cranky irises and lilacs and smelly sisters?) while we drove from cemetery to cemetery, and that it would eventually lead to me getting kissed, pinched and patted by a bunch of great-aunts who smelled more like lilacs than did the lilacs themselves.
I don’t remember a lot of emotion from Dad on Memorial Day — no tears, no sniffles, no trembling lower lips. But there was profound respect and a deep and abiding sense of honor in Dad’s voice as he talked about his parents, his brothers Max and Sam, his grandparents and an assortment of dearly departed aunts, uncles and cousins.
The most reverential moments of our traditional Memorial Day observance usually came as we placed flowers around the grave of Great-Great-Grandpa Henson. This became almost ceremonial as we carefully decorated the tall, stately marker that notes Henson’s final resting place. Dad always talked about Grandpa Henson’s life as a pioneer of the state in which we lived, and as the first mayor of the city in which he is buried. Almost everything I know about Great-Great-Grandpa Henson I learned while decorating his grave on Memorial Day.
By the time we emptied the Impala of irises and lilacs, Dad had pretty much covered the entire history of the Walker family. Sometimes we spent a little time on Mom’s side of the family, but honestly, the Walkers were the Main Memorial Day Event for our family. The Arrowsmiths were the second feature you stayed around for if you weren’t too tired.
And that was OK with Mom — which, if you knew my strong-willed, outspoken mother, is something of a Memorial Day miracle.
It has been nearly 11 years since my father died, and more than 30 since I lost my mother, but I find myself missing them both profoundly this year. Perhaps the recent passing of my big brother Dick has something to do with that. Dick was the fourth of our parents’ eight children and the best of us. He died three days before our scheduled brother-sister reunion, evidently opting instead for a heavenly reunion with our parents and our eldest brother and sister. I can’t help but smile at the thought of them all gathering to welcome Dick to the other side even as we were gathering in California three weeks ago to say our good-byes.
And to remember — evoking once again the imagery of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
"Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven, / Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels."
Or, in our case, the smelly irises and lilacs.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr