By Linda Emley
Memorial Day weekend is one of my favorite holidays because some of my best memories are from the days when my grandmother, Mildred Kell Schooler, and I got flowers ready to place on the graves of our family.
We used real flowers because her mother always told her that she didn’t want plastic flowers on her grave.
My grandmother had a yard full of pretty flowers, but it takes a lot of flowers to decorate 10 graves. We always visited my grandfather, her parents, her grandparents, her in-laws and all her aunts and uncles.
Peonies are my favorite flower and they always remind me of my grandmother. Besides peonies, we used iris, snow balls and any flower that happened to be in bloom.
Some years the peonies would bloom early so she would put them in her refrigerator until the weekend arrived. We used the same containers year after year, so we always had to stop by and pick them up a few days after the holiday.
Sometimes we used coffee cans covered in tin foil or fruit jars, but it didn’t really matter because we used real flowers.
We had four cemeteries we always visited, and then we added two more after I found a few more family members from our past.
I miss this family tradition so much, but I still visit our cemeteries every year and pay my respects to my grandmother’s family. I still visit her favorite aunt and uncle’s graves on the hill. They didn’t have any children, so I doubt that anyone else ever visits their grave.
One of my favorite cemeteries is only open Memorial Day weekend. It’s the Vanbebber Cemetery, which is located three miles east of Knoxville on HH Highway. The cemetery is in the middle of a pasture behind St. Paul‘s Church.
You have to drive through two cowfields to get there but it is worth the drive. It is one of the most quiet and peaceful spots in Ray County. I have three generations buried here and even though I never knew any of them, I feel like I did. I heard stories about them when I was little as my great grandmother, Nellie Jane Campbell Schooler, told me about her family. I love that small piece of Ray County soil so much because it is a part of my history.
Nellie Jane was the perfect great-grandmother. She lived with us when she was older and I will always treasure those memories. Looking back on it now, I hope she enjoyed it, too. My sister and I shared a room with her and I know it had to be hard for her.
We lived in a four-bedroom house with lots of room, but we had seven people living under one roof – my parents, my brother, myself, my baby sister, our great-grandmother and my dad’s father, Ollie Martin.
Our grandmother went to bed early and we had to quietly sneak into our room to go to bed each night. Anyone that knows me, knows that I don’t do anything quietly. I never have and never will.
So how did Memorial Day get its start? It was originally named Decoration Day and was created to honor those who died while serving in the military. It started after the Civil War, but did not become an official federal holiday until Congress passed the National Holiday Act in 1971. Now it always falls on the last Monday of May and we get a three-day weekend. In our modern world, Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer.
Before it became a national holiday, it was still a big deal because our President issued a proclamation each year. “I, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, Thursday, May 30, 1963 as a day of prayer for lasting peace, and I urge all citizens on that day to invoke God’s blessing on those who have died in defense of our country and to pray for a world of freedom with peace and justice.”
In 1963, Richmond had a Memorial Day much like the one we have today. The Richmond News of May 29, 1963 had this announcement: “Memorial services will be held by the American Legion Griffith post 237 at Memory Gardens and Sunny Slope cemetery tomorrow morning. Don Harrell, vice commander of the post, said that all Legionnaires are asked to assemble at 9 a.m. at the women’s club for participation in the ceremony. Harrell also said the Legion requests the people of Richmond fly the American flag tomorrow.”
Then this was in the News May 31, 1963: “At least 21 Richmond businessmen came downtown Memorial Day to put out the flag in commemoration of our nation’s war dead. At 1:30 p.m. the following firms had flags displayed in front of their store windows: Carter’s Funeral Home, Harrell’s Sundry, Central Drug, Pointer’s Jewelers, College Liquors, Kansas Jewelry, The Jones Store, Town Tavern, Happy Hollow Bar, Broadmore Finance Corp., Carter Bowen real estate, Rader’s, Economy Drug, Smith Hardware, Davis Paint, Mohn-Clark and Alder, Duvall Clothing, Mansur Radio, Wall’s Cut-Rate store and The News. In addition, the post office building and city hall displayed flags. The last national holiday, Washington’s Birthday, Richmond merchants did not have to make a special trip to put out their flags. The last two holidays local merchants appear to have become flag-flying-conscious. On Lincoln’s Birthday anniversary only a few days before Washington’s, only about five flags dotted the Richmond business area.”
Some things have changed since 1963, but it is good to see that many people still honor their forefathers by placing flowers on their graves and flying our American Flag.
I love visiting cemeteries and I don’t limit my visits to Memorial Day weekend. I visit the graves of Ray County in all kind of weather and I don’t just visit my family. When I’m working on a story about someone, I need to know where they were buried and pay them a visit.
I’m working on a story about the cemeteries of Ray County. At last count, there were around 250 cemeteries and family burial plots on my list.
Please take some time over the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend and visit some of Ray County’s past as we honor our forefathers this holiday weekend.
Write Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org