O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--Thanksgiving for Heroic Service, Book of Common Prayer, page 839
Flanders has its field of poppies, rural northeast Missouri has its peonies.
When I was growing up, peonies were the standard issue flower to take to the cemetery on Memorial Day.
You have to realize my grandmother was of that generation that attacked the cemeteries on Memorial Day weekend like Patton taking Sicily. The whole week before, we took all these fruit jars and mayonnaise jars gathering dust in the basement and covered them with aluminum foil, and made hooks out of coathangers (there were always some hooks left over from last year, but we always seemed to be making more) in preparation for The Great Cemetery Raid. My grandmother sat around and outlined her plan for how we would make a loop and cover all these cemeteries in Macon County--almost to the headstone. We weren't just putting flowers on fallen soldier graves, or even veteran's graves, it seemed we were putting flowers on every dead person she knew--people like her friend Becca's parents, Cap and Stella, and the former driver of her dad's harness racing horses, Fred Lowe.
Needless to say, the older she got, the bigger the list got, until it was just this crazy huge list.
Even though she was capable of driving herself, my grandmother insisted on having a "driver." I realized it was a social thing. Northeast Missouri is an odd place--we're distinctly "not southern" in some ways, but we distinctly ARE "southern" in others. I realized there was a social component of the women visiting with each other at the cemeteries, and when I look back on it, I realize this was this sort of "Miss Daisy" moment for her, and every Miss Daisy needs a Hoke. Originally, my grandfather had that job, but he saw his opportunity to get out of it when I turned 16. He dumped the Memorial Day driving job on me, and he stayed home and had the Indy 500 and other auto races on TV.
But every year, "when the peonies were coming in," was a stressor. I can't ever remember actually ENJOYING the peonies growing up. It was all about if they were coming in too early or too late for Memorial Day--not to mention that once Memorial Day weekend arrived, we'd never see another peony in the yard the rest of the season, if the season was "successful." They would all be harvested to make the jars of flowers that would go to the cemetery. Granny was always getting my grandfather to plant more peony bushes. We used to scavenge my great-grandmother's yard, but after her death, my great-grandfather had a habit of mowing over the peony bushes prematurely, and Granny had to rely on her own source.
When I was younger, I never liked being the driver for this venture. It was all about "the attack on the cemeteries," getting it done efficiently, and it was all about my grandmother socializing with the women who were there, and mostly I was supposed to emulate the other "Hokes" there--keep my mouth shut, silently prepare the next jar of peonies that would be used, and stand around and look at the graves a lot--mostly thinking, "Who ARE these people? I don't know them but every year I'm out here looking at their graves."
If my mother went along for this venture, (she didn't always go) it often became one of those times where the tensions between the three generations of women in my family showed through. I felt lucky in that "I had a distinct role." As a small child, I helped my grandfather do the "Hoke" role. I grew into that role myself. My mom, I don't think, ever found her role, and as I look back, it was probably illustrative of an ongoing tension between her and my grandmother. I don't think my grandmother ever enjoyed being a parent. Honestly, I don't think she enjoyed being a grandparent all that much, either, but because I was bright and did sports, and was in many school events, she had plenty to do with me. My mom played basketball in high school (and was very good) and my grandmother probably enjoyed that part of my mother's life, but I don't think she really enjoyed much else about my mom. She always viewed my mother as "the weakest of the three of us"--my mother was afraid of storms, was in love with romantic love, and was always trying to be like June Cleaver despite the fact she successively married two James Deans. My grandmother, for the most part, found this annoying. She did not have a "practical" daughter, and it was very common for her to upbraid my mom in front of me or TO me.
So on these cemetery runs, the lack of a firm "role" for my mom made her sort of act out in odd ways. She would put together flowers and put them on the graves of strangers "because they have a pretty headstone." She would comment and critique other people's flower arrangements. God help her, she would question the use of the standard issue peonies we used! She would start talking about all the wonderful artificial flowers there are out there, that we could be using, and "Why don't we do THAT next year? Our flowers look like we're some kind of poor white trash that can't afford nicer, artificial flowers."
THAT statement would just LAUNCH my grandmother. She was told in no uncertain terms that "This is what MY mom did, and this is what WE do. These are REAL flowers--LIVE flowers." I recognized early on I did not have a dog in this hunt. I stayed out of it. I realized the thing to do was let my mom play in her world, and my grandmother work in hers.
As my grandmother got more elderly, and my mom sort of bowed out of this production for several years (My mom went through a phase where she kind of decided everyone needed to be cremated, and cemeteries were "just morbid," and she spent about a decade and a half pretending death was not in the room--this coincided with the period of time she got breast cancer and was being treated for it, and dealing with her own mortality,) Granny got less into the "attack mode" and actually started telling the stories associated with the graves. I finally got to hear who all these people were, and I wish I had written more of it down. On the other hand, really, I'm the keeper of nothing. My mom was never all that interested in learning it--I think she'd rather just put that responsibility on me--and really, after I am dead, who will really care? For me, it's just another reminder that after I'm gone, it will just go to the ether and become part of the company of saints. Sometimes that bugs me, but mostly, these days, I've just decided, "It's not all that important, except maybe to geneaologists, and I'm carrying too big an ego if I think anyone really, REALLY will care 200 years from now."
But when Granny died in 2002, suddenly my mom started doing cemetery duty on Memorial Day. She just kind of started doing it with no explanation or discussion.
I think she has an expectation I'm supposed to, also. Yesterday, she called me and started telling me who all's graves she took flowers to over the weekend, and she slipped in a "Have you been out there yet?" "Yet..." as in "You're supposed to go."
I simply replied, "I'm not going. It's fine if you want to go." She let it drop, mercifully.
But Memorial Day, for me, becomes another of those reminders that there has been this chasm between my mother and me almost all of my life. These things are no one's fault. They just are. She was pretty young when I was born, and frankly, she had to spend more of her efforts dealing with my alcoholic father and working full time at the one solid job in the family. In some ways, my grandparents became my parents, psychologically, and my parents were just "these immature people." I was a kid who never hardly ever got to be a kid in this whole mess. I blame no one in this. But just like how the peonies are perennials, and bloom every year at their appointed time, there are things where the chasm between my mom and I are visible on a regular, perennial basis. Memorial Day, Mother's Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, I have become to be "on guard" for an emotional flareup from her at worst, and at best, an attempt to manipulate me into being "the daughter she expected from me" that is quietly rebuffed.
I sometimes watch mothers and daughters who seem to be each other's confidantes, who do stuff together, and it is discomforting and bewildering to me. I would not say I'm jealous. It just seems weird, foreign. Some of it, I am sure, is residue from the hands of my grandparents in this. I was taught by them, at a young age, that my mom "can't handle things," and to just not expect her to handle them. My guess is, this is only partially true. I think she can handle things. I just don't think she always chooses to, and holds out for someone to "take care of her." What times I did fall into that trap, I was repeatedly reminded I was not doing it right. So there was a day I just quit.
I have no doubt we love each other. But we simply do not know "what to do with each other." There are wounds neither of us could really control in there. At best, we've made peace with loving each other from a distance and letting each of our lives be what they are. I don't always feel good about that, but I don't particularly wish it to be different.
But as I sat and looked at my eight or nine peony bushes this spring, I realized that the one thing I could do, is for the first time in my life, notice and appreciate the peonies. I thought about how they are this wonderfully showy, audacious flowers with vivid colors that have an unrivaled beauty for a few short days a year, and the rest of the year they are rather ragged and scraggly and a bit of a nuisance, and best cut back when their time of blooming is over. They die back by summer and go dormant for another year. You can count on their short season of beauty like clockwork, but the rest of the year they are not that great.
In that, perhaps they are the perfect metaphor for that chasm that generations sometimes have between them.