Five years ago, I witnessed this phenomenon first hand when my cousin Jack and I arrived at Toronto Cemetery to place flowers on the grave site our grandparents, George and Gladys Curtis, share with their son George Walter, who was only 24 when he was shot down and killed over Germany. We also had flowers for Jack's parents, Evelyn (my mother's favorite sister) and Elmer Hill, and for our great grandparents' graves as well.
The surprise was that extended family -- our mothers' cousins Ed and Leslie Sherman with Leslie's daughter Candace (a favorite playmate of our youth) -- had been there first, making sure that no Curtis or Hill or Sherman grave went unhonored and undecorated. Their kindness and the joy of seeing each other once again made it a very special day.
Memorial Day Flag Ceremony - Toronto, KS Cemetery
After our joyous reunion with Candace and Leslie, whom I had not seen in many years, Jack and I decided to take a tour of the town of Toronto. We had spent many childhood summers romping in and out of our grandparents' old farmhouse where they didn't have electricity or indoor plumbing until 1951. We had memories of trips to town with its ice cream parlor, library staffed by our mothers' kindly Aunt Floss and we always marveled at the finest building in town - Toronto High School.
Times have not been kind to Toronto: in the late 1950's, a federal dam project was built. My grandparents' original farm is now under the lake that resulted. Government officials paid them for their land and my grandparents moved to another small farming town -- Madison -- about 50 miles northeast. Their original house was saved, bought by distant cousins and moved to a hill overlooking the lake. Despite government assurances that the lake would make Toronto a recreational/vacation paradise, this never happened. Though some long-time residents linger, the town is dying. Main street is filled with shuttered store-fronts. Toronto High School, still magnificent, is empty, unused for years. Jack and I found that those warm childhood memories can't be revisited, except in our hearts.
Feeling melancholy by all that was gone and declining, Jack came up with just the cure: a surprise visit to Hazel Parker.
Hazel, lively, opinionated and filled-with-memories, had been a high school classmate of my mother's and a dear friend of Jack's mother Evelyn, two years younger.
As we talked, Hazel dismissed my mother's adolescent flightiness with a wave of the hand and smiled warmly at her memories of the more down-to-earth and gently humorous Evelyn. We spent a wonderful afternoon with her talking non-stop and going through photo albums. Her living memories of an era long past were a joy.
And, on our return to her home in the Kansas City area, we rejoiced in sharing time together with his sister, my cousin, Caron. Caron, who was still recovering from injuries suffered in a fiercely competitive basketball game with one of her teenage grandsons, was unable to accompany us on the Toronto trek. We were joined at her home by our cousin George, always a delight, who was named in honor of young George Walter, lost so tragically and far too soon, in World War II.
It occurs to me, as I look back on that special Memorial Day five years ago, that the best memories are those that live in our heart. It's wonderful to be able to honor the dead with flowers on their graves. But
the best way of all is with warm memories, memories of the stories of their lives, memories of our times with them.
So today, I think of the little things that linger when I remember those we've loved and lost.
I remember Grandma waking me up on summer mornings by rubbing my hands and asking if I'd like some breakfast and, oh, those farm breakfasts! I remember her laughing a warm little laugh, delighted with something I had said or done -- and am thrilled when I hear my cousin Caron today laugh that same sweet laugh.
I remember Grandpa asking me out to pick strawberries with him so we could spend some quiet time together and taking me out to the island garden -- an island in the middle of a wide river that ran through the Madison farm -- where he grew watermelons and cantaloupes safe from the melon-bashing antics of local youth. I remember his lifelong quiet grief over the loss of his son and his strength in living on to love and nurture a new generation of grandchildren.
I remember my grandparents' ever-expanding table at Sunday lunches when friends and relatives would drop in unannounced. I marvel to this day at the abundance of good will and good food. There was always enough fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and home-made apple pie for all -- and a wealth of shared stories and laughter.
I remember Caron and Jack's parents -- Evelyn and Elmer -- with love and appreciation. Uncle Elmer's sly humor and sense of fun, Aunt Evelyn's warmth and humor and loving arms. I remember how we would shake our heads when we thought of Uncle Elmer's lifetime pass on TWA -- he had worked for the airline for most of his career -- and how he and Evelyn could travel anywhere in the world, but always chose to visit us in Los Angeles or Elmer's sister Edith and her family in Phoenix, because that was where the love was. And love was a far greater allure for them than travels to exotic lands.
I remember George's mother Ruth, my mother's youngest sister. My mother and Ruth -- ten years apart in age and quite different in temperament -- were never especially close. But I remember being delighted every time I saw her in my adulthood. She was bright and fun and had interesting insights. I remember spending the night at George and Debbie's home after Uncle Elmer's funeral in 1986 and sharing the guest room with Aunt Ruth. We told stories and secrets well into the night. And I treasure the memory.
I remember my own parents, Ethel/Caron and Jim, now dead nearly 32 years. While the painful dynamics of our family linger, there are memories, burnished by time and loss, that linger warmly: my mother's perpetual optimism, joy in living and warm embrace, my father's stories so eloquently told, the love he felt but struggled to express, the vulnerability that made me yearn to reach across time and embrace the fragile, battered little boy he once had been and always was in spirit.
And I remember Aunt Molly, my father's younger sister, in so many ways, at so many times. I remember our fun times and the tough lessons she taught. I remember sitting on the beach with her so many times, eating grapes and making notes as she spun wonderful poems seemingly out of the ocean air. I remember dashing into the sea with her and my brother Mike, pulling each other down into the swirling surf and laughing. I think of her when I see the ocean or walk on the beach. Or when I smell lavender. Her sheets always smelled of lavender and that remains a lovely sense memory that makes me think of all the fun times I spent with her at her beach apartment when I was a teenager.
I remember so many teachers who taught me vital lessons and are now gone -- Sister Ann Ronin, Sister Mary de Fatima, and the amazing, life changing Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita, my toughest and most wonderful college professor.
I remember the heartbreaking number of friends who have died: the lovely Marie Traina, a journalism classmate in college, who sang and played the guitar so beautifully and who sat through three showings of "The Graduate" with me -- killed in an act of domestic violence when she was only 28. And my roommates Cheryl Martindill Rennix who shared so much laughter and so many tears and who did the best ever imitation of Farfel, the dog puppet in the old Nestle's commercials; Lorraine Plomondon Scace who was so wise for her years and so wonderfully kind and who died at only 42 and Lorene Condon Caldwell, so generous and sweet and whom I never fully appreciated until many years later. Then there was Vern Haase, with whom I had my very first date (as a college freshman) and who walked along the Lake Michigan beach with me one blustery November day as we waited to hear if President Kennedy would survive his assassin's bullet. And Janet Zieschang, my high school friend, who suffered her entire life from extreme obesity and the isolation that imposed and who taught me so many lessons in friendship and seeing beyond the superficial to the spirit within.
Our loved ones live on in our memories of the lessons they taught us, the good times and tough times shared.
These memories are precious -- not just on Memorial Day -- but every day of our lives.