Another Memorial Day weekend not spent in West Virginia. It must be nearly ten years ago that I was able to make it to visit my family on that special weekend. Every year that I am not there I say, “Next year,” but next year never comes.
Memorial Day is a national, secular holiday to remember and celebrate those who died in service to the country. It was originally called Decoration Day and that term is still used by some in the Appalachian region. The tradition has changed throughout the years, but I can remember going in a large family group to decorate the graves in various family cemeteries in my hometown. I remember it not as a solemn military holiday, but as a celebration of our family’s past.
My paternal grandfather, a World War II veteran and history teacher, would tell us grandchildren the personal histories of the people whose bodies lay under the ground we decorated with brightly colored polyester flowers. Afterwards we’d have a big cookout at my grandparents’ place.
Although people don’t do it anymore, I have heard stories, from as late as the 1960s about families having “dinner on the ground,” basically a picnic, when it was time to decorate the family graves. Instead of polyester flowers, they made paper ones. These dinners still happen for some family names, but usually in the fall, and are referred to as a “homecoming.” For example, my mom usually organizes a Hatfield Homecoming for her immediate family-of-origin and her cousins. (It should be noted that Hatfield is a common name, and I can imagine that there are many Hatfield Homecomings).
Maybe I find a reason not to go because so much has changed. My grandparents are gone—in fact I stopped going home for Memorial Day around the time my paternal grandparents passed on. And if it weren’t for social media, I would know nothing of the texture of my cousins’ lives. My siblings are wonderful, but we are a blended family and many of us don’t necessarily share the same ancestors. But I would like to begin making more of an effort to take my kids back. To teach them about their history within a family and place. To pass on the connection to our past. Next year.