Sunday, May 29, 2011


I’ve been thinking about ordering iris rhizomes for the south side of the farmhouse. I almost did it, too, until I remembered the projected work to face the window frames this summer. The work will involve ladders and scaffolding close to the house, so perhaps this isn’t the year to develop that bed. 

At this time of year my thoughts turn to the lovely “old-fashioned” flower beds my parents and grandparents maintained. Seems like it’s just what folks did in the “yesterday” of my life. In the spring my parents had iris, lilacs, bleeding heart, a beautiful hawthorn tree, coral bells, columbine, a few roses, and I just don’t remember what else. Grandpa Portfors had peonies and iris and whatever else.

I tell you this because my family’s tradition was to observe Memorial Day, which many old-timers referred to as “Decoration Day.” We visited four cemeteries – Riverside in Orofino, Normal Hill Cemetery in Lewiston, Burnt Ridge Cemetery near Troy, Idaho; and the Gilbert Cemetery. We loaded cut flowers from the yard into washtubs, added water, lifted the tubs into the back of the car, and off we went. 

Depending on the weather, some years we didn’t have as many flowers. I’m sure my mother took mental stock of what was available and planned accordingly. I remember her saying, “I’ll save that lovely iris for so-and-so’s grave.” She knew how many graves she had to “decorate” at each cemetery. 

My job was to make smaller bouquets for the graves of little ones who left us all to soon. I would cover an old coffee can (remember the little one-pound squatty can?) with foil. Then I would snip pansies, bleeding heart, baby roses, and lily-of-the-valley. I made several of those each year – one for Baby Walrath at Riverside and one for Isaac Stinson, an uncle who died in infancy, buried at Burnt Ridge.

Mother never used artificial flowers. As time went on and we began to have fewer flowers, she planted cemetery boxes. She started this project as soon as she could get the plants from the nursery – marigolds, pansies, petunias, geraniums, and a “spike” for height. We would deliver the boxes to the various graves and then someone would pick them up after a week or ten days had passed so that the boxes could be re-used the next year. 

Apparently Memorial Day traditions vary. Here in the Pacific Northwest, many people decorate graves on Memorial Day weekend. However, my mother-in-law from Arkansas found this surprising. “We don’t do that,” she said. She went on to explain that on a Sunday near her late husband’s birthday, she would have a bouquet of flowers delivered to the church in his memory and then carry it to his grave. 
Well, the tradition of Memorial Day visits to cemeteries dwindled for me when I became an adult. I participated some, but I wasn’t free to devote several days to traveling the countryside. Still, I have fond memories of this family tradition and I love to see the cemeteries all decorated on Memorial Day. I especially love to see flowers on a very old grave because it means someone honors the memory of that person. 

[Hallie and Nick are here and we visited the Gilbert Cemetery this afternoon. Photo 1: I made only one live bouquet of iris and narcissus and left it at my dad's grave. I had small artificial bouquets -- 16 of them -- for other family members. Photo 2: Hallie and Nick move through the Gilbert  Cemetery reading the markers. Photo 3: The gravestone of my great-grandmother Lucy Dickson who passed away in 1920. The bouquet I left doesn't show in the photo.]


Leah said...

So good to hear that you decorated graves this weekend. In Missouri, when I was married, it was a family tradition to visit graves and put flowers on them. We went to a tiny church cemetery in the countryside near the town of Odessa in the 1960's. Our first baby was buried there and other members of my husband's family.

We lived in Kansas City and always stopped at Aunt Claudie's large white clapboard house in Odessa before going to the cemetery. She made Wacky cake for Brian, my son. This was what he looked forward to each year. We didn't have a garden, so we bought cemetery wreaths at local stores.

I loved the memorial day tradition and the visits to this little churchyard. It was such a peaceful pastoral place. Occasionally someone put flowers on a 19th century grave. This meant that someone in the family still remembered a long gone ancestor.

I especially like the tradition of boy scouts and volunteers going to cemeteries to put little American flags on veterans graves this weekend. How do they know? A veteran's family can get a marker from the government that shows their rank, military branch and which war he/she was in.

Thanks for keeping the meaning of Memorial Day alive, Kathy.

Chris said...

I know you must have had a great weekend with Hallie and Nick home. Good memories.

I loved your pictures. I, too, have childhood memories of making the rounds of various cemeteries to place flowers on the graves of great grandparents and then grandparents. We had iris growing in profusion at the front of our garden lot and we always cut them to take. I remember standing at the graves of family members I'd never met, and yet somehow knew, because of stories I'd heard about them.

(And on a side note, it's been so cold this spring, our iris have yet to bloom!)