Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day Memories

Typical of many tiny towns across America's heartland, Toronto, Kansas comes alive in a very real sense every Memorial Day when dozens of citizens and as many former residents converge on the town's cemetery to socialize and to remember not only those loved ones lost in war, but also all those they have loved and lost -- and to share the joy of reconnecting with each other.

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

                                            Honor Guard - Toronto, KS Memorial Day

                              Grave of Grandparents and Uncle George - KIA 1944

                               At grave of grandmother's parents in Toronto Cemetery

                                 Jack at his parents' grave in Toronto Cemetery

                            Jack and me with Candace Sherman and her Dad Leslie

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.

           Our grandparents' original farmhouse, now moved to higher ground

                           Jack on Main Street in Toronto, Kansas 

                             Lovely but long vacant Toronto High School    

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.

                                          Jack and Hazel Parker share memories

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.

Cousins together: Caron Hill Roudebush, George Taylor, me and Jack Hill         

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.                                      


  1. That's the wonderfully transcendent thing about our memories. They hold life and warmth for those long gone from this earth, and in the process, gift us with the same life and warmth. I immensely enjoyed walking through these with you today.

  2. How wonderful to reconnect, to share memories, to honor the departed together!

  3. Sadly, the older we get, more and more of our loved ones are shifted to memory. You remembered and honored yours so well today. Wonderful job.
    I thought it so sweet that you spent time with your mother's friend. I know you made her day.

  4. Isn't memory the most wonderful gift that we so often take for granted. When we think of it, it's absolutely amazing that we can remember and connect with the past and take a look of where we've been.

    I've enjoyed reading about your sweet memories from your past with family and friends. May your memories last your whole lifetime.


  5. Yes so much to remember.
    Sometimes it is scary because you see how many people already left for another journey and we are coming closer too, to following them, while new people are slowly replacing us.
    Its something you never think about when you are young.

  6. What a loving and touching posts as you recalled for yourself and us those happy family memories, Kathy. I love the idea of using Memorial Day not only to honour and remember those who fell in war, but all those we have loved and lost.

    On a lighter note, I really envy you your memory for names. Faces are always with me, but not always the names.

  7. I enjoyed the walk down memory lane with you today. We don't do things today like we did back when we were growing up. Going to the outdoor movies, staying with cousins, visiting so much more, then we do today. We enjoyed our get together for whatever occasion, and decorated the graves of our love ones. We visited more then and maybe it might be my thinking, but I don't think we were in the hurry that everybody is today. We took the time to smell the roses as the saying goes. I enjoy people whether related or not to talk with. You can learn so much. Have a great day. Your Missouri Friend.

  8. This was a beautiful memoir. While I knew none of these people, I was touched deeply while reading of your memories of them.

  9. Memories are so powerful, aren't they? You have some lovely ones that you have shared. Like you, I care for the cemetery, being the last one in town, and each visit is a trip down memory lane as well, from the time I did flowers there with my mom to all the times after, with my parents, aunts and uncles you lie there. Sending belated Memorial Day wishes...

  10. Dear Kathy, thank you for sharing your memories of your beloved extended family and your teachers and your friends. With this thoughtful and loving memorial, you have helped me remember also all those who raised me and educated me and befriended me. I am now the oldest generation of my family and many of the teachers who taught me so wisely and well are gone also and yes, some friends whom I treasure. But love is never lost. It endures. Each time I reach out to someone, it is the love given to me by others that I share. Thank you for reminding me of this. Peace.

  11. Hi Kathy, I know how you feel when you talk about going back to your childhood home/area.. I grew up in a small town in Virginia... I've been back a few times ---but my childhood home doesn't look anything like what it did when I lived there. Someone bought it and renovated it.. To me, it's not home!!!! I have a hard time just looking at it now... BUT--at least, the home is there and people do love it... So that is a good thing!!! BUT--my memories will always be within my heart. AND--so glad that you all got to talk with Hazel... That's WHERE the good memories are!!!!

    Sounds like--overall--that you had a wonderful trip. Glad you got to see some other family members.

    YES---our memories will always live in our hearts to be shared with those we love.


  12. What a lovely day you had going back with Jack for Memorial Day that year. Sounds like the prefect way to spend the day. I loved that stopped and visited with your mom's friend.
    Isn't it wonderful to have such precious memories of those days.
    Wish more families would get back to the way it once was including mine.
    You did a fabulous job writing this for us.
    I would love to get with you and share recipes for going on this vegan diet I am trying. It is slow going right now but I hope to get better. Let me know what you want to do.

  13. I lived in Toronto the first three years of my life. My grandmother was Adel Mchugh. She lived on Broad st. My Dad was Albert Wahl, and mother was Chelsia (Mchugh) wahl. Does anyone remmber any of my family? Thanks David F. Wahl

  14. My parents and grandparents are also buried in Toronto Cemetery. I went to school with your cousin Randy from 1st thru 3rd grade in Toronto before, like your Grandparents George & Gladys moved to Madison area. I also went to school in Madison with MIKE McCoy the year he lived with them in Madison.
    Michael Paske (now living in texas and on Facebook)

    P.S. Your grandparents, Curtis side are mentioned a few times in the FB Group "Remember When In Madison" Gladys and my grandmother on maternal side are were best of friends both in Toronto and later in Madison.