My recollections of Memorial Day are dusty and filled with the creaking sound of the springs on my cousin’s Buick Roadmaster as it forded dry streambeds and trundled along rutted country roads in southern Illinois – and then the thwack of fat June bugs popping on the windshield as she picked up speed on the blacktop down towards the Harmony Grove church.
To the eyes of a suburban boy, the places she took my father and me were just empty prairie. To my father’s eyes, they were filled with the faint lines of places and people he had known as a boy. That caved-in pile of sheet metal and rotten boards was Wick Cage’s general store where his father carried eggs to sell. That empty corner was where his grandfather’s little house had stood in the dirt yard where the old man, standing in his best starched overalls at the head of a long table carried outside for the occasion, had poured dippers of iced tea out of a galvanized bucket. Where the hens watched nervously as one of their own made for Sunday dinner.
Just as my old man would start waxing nostalgic, our tour guide moved us along. We were not there to remember life. We were there to visit the dead. My cousin had been retired from the Air Force longer than I had been alive, and she took seriously her job not just as family historian, but as one who would see that our family would do its part for Memorial Day – for Decoration Day as it was once properly known.
And on to another cemetery we would go, this one clutched by slender locust trees and set back from the road on a rise above Hurricane Creek. Who came to this ancient place keep it up? Who oiled and painted that wrought-iron gate? Who trimmed back the grass from the tiny headstone of an unnamed stillborn child dead for 120 years? Why? No time for questions. Cousin mustered us out and deployed the flag markers for the military men and flowers for the civilians. Back in the Roadmaster and back on the road. A whole day went by that way, graves of my ancestors and graves of those unknown to us. The Black Hawk War, the Civil War, World War I, and on and on.
You can stand at the Dodge Grove Cemetery up the highway in Mattoon, where my grandmother’s people were well-off enough to be laid to rest beneath monuments amid mausoleums. From there you see the rise of the earth reveal the graves of hundreds of Civil War dead, including three generals, as the locals will tell you. And any of them, officers or enlisted, who had no one to decorate their graves that day, got a flag, courtesy of our little honor guard.