Memorial Day weekend has become the time when many celebrate the start of summer & a long weekend with barbecues, picnics, and general fun-in-the-sun, ready to leave the cool, drizzly weather of spring behind. Amidst all the holiday sales, parties, pool openings, and other distractions, the true meaning of Memorial Day has gotten lost in the buzz. Memorial Day started shortly after the Civil War, when survivors remembered those who fell on the battlefields by decorating their graves & hosting parades in their honor. It wasn’t until the 1970s – nearly 100 years later – that Memorial Day became the holiday it is now.
Memorial Day weekend is especially dear to me because it is the weekend my family hosts its annual reunion – a gathering steeped in a tradition that spans generations. My parents took me to my first one at the age of 8, and I expected it would be much like the family reunions my friends’ families had: everyone meets at a park, they grill out & eat burgers with potato salad, and then the kids run around and play while the grown-ups mingle & chat.
I should have known ours would be different.
I should have known ours would be different when my dad insisted we make the 7-hour drive from our home in Dayton, Ohio to Crossville, Tennessee in the middle of the night so we could make it in time for breakfast. I was plugged into my Walkman headphones, probably listening to New Kids on the Block & wondering why breakfast was such a big deal. I mean, milk & cereal or eggs & bacon weren’t that exciting, right? (It turns out, breakfast was a big deal because my great-uncle Burl made the meanest biscuits & gravy in Cumberland county.)
I should have known ours would be different when we pulled up to Uncle Burl’s modest clapboard house at 6:00 a.m. & discovered that he didn’t just have breakfast ready for me, Mom & Dad, but rather a pile of hot biscuits & pot of steaming sausage gravy big enough to feed us, his wife Mattie Mae, my multitude of cousins (Cody, Gary, Rachel, and who knows who else), their parents, my great-uncle Fred, and anyone else who happened by. With leftovers to spare.
I should have known ours would be different when we bought ornate flower arrangements at the flea market that Saturday morning, then drove from cemetery to cemetery, replacing faded blooms with our fresh displays & sticking small American flags into the soil by the graves of our family’s soldiers. Dad narrated as we went along – “This right here is the grave of your great-great…and this was his wife…and their son fought in World War I….”
I should have known ours would be different when I woke up in the guest bedroom of Uncle Burl’s house the morning of our reunion & he wasn’t making breakfast in the kitchen.
I should have known ours would be different when I sleepily made my way to the front porch & saw him slicing lemons into a Styrofoam cooler while Uncle Fred dumped in a 5-pound bag of sugar & my dad held a running garden hose, the water filling the cooler at a slow, steady pace.
I should have known ours would be different when I asked them, “What are you doing?” and Uncle Burl answered in his thick, throaty southern accent, “Makin’ lemonade.”
I really should have known.
But it wasn’t until we drove down the shady, winding road to our reunion that I fully grasped just how different our reunion was. For one, the road we drove down was named after us.
And, most tellingly of all, my dad parked our enormous blue Cadillac Fleetwood not in front of a sunny park with swing sets & charcoal grills, but instead in front of, well, this:
What is going on here?! I thought, slightly panicked. Instead, I asked my dad, “Where are we?”
“This is our family cemetery,” Dad said proudly, waving at people walking by carrying covered dishes & buckets of fried chicken.
“Why are we here?”
“This is where the reunion is. We get to eat, then hang out with our ancestors.”
He’s making fun of me! I thought and flopped back in the seat. “I am not eating in a cemetery! That’s gross,” I said, with the kind of defiance that only a preteen girl can muster.
“OK, but your mom & I are getting out & taking the keys with us,” Dad replied, opening his car door.
I reluctantly got out of the car & saw at least 4 full-size picnic tables set up just outside the cemetery gates, covered with delicious food – chicken & dumplings, potatoes, biscuits, cakes, pies, and puddings – with the Styrofoam cooler perched at the end of one of them, people already eagerly ladling lemonade into disposable plastic cups. “You gotta get some before it’s all gone!” Cody said as he rushed by to get his cupful.Well, I guess I’ll try some…I took a sip from Dad’s cup, and then immediately joined the throng of my chatting, back-slapping kin around the cooler.
It is still the best lemonade I’ve ever tasted.
I started to look forward to visiting my large, loud, strange family & spending the holiday weekend “eating with the dead” as my dad calls it. I learned to appreciate the utter weirdness of it all – from the tour d’ tombstones, right down to the hose-water lemonade. I looked forward to Uncle Burl & Uncle Fred’s stories, and was amazed by their youth & vigor, even as they aged well into their 80s. I remember the year Uncle Burl went hunting – with a crossbow! – and bagged a large wild boar that we later barbecued & ate, and I remember how Uncle Fred, a World War II vet, would give me a hug at the end of our visit, covertly stuffing a $10 bill & handful of Werther’s Originals into my hand as we embraced. Both men passed on a few years ago, but they never lost the spark in their eyes or the vitality with which they lived each day.
I won’t be at the reunion this weekend – it’s a bit tougher to get from Seattle to Crossville than it is to make the trip from Dayton to Crossville – but I’ll make it back someday, and I can’t wait to once again see this sign & drink some delicious lemonade.
All pictures are the author’s own & may not be used without permission.