As a sideways smile of moon rose in the east last Wednesday, I walked the pre-dawn back streets of Pittsburg thinking about Memorial Day.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar
— William Wordsworth
As a sideways smile of moon rose in the east last Wednesday, I walked the pre-dawn back streets of Pittsburg thinking about Memorial Day. Or, as it was called when I was a kid in the Republic of Frontenac, Decoration Day.
Felt the warp and woof of childhood, when I rode my bike behind the hometown parade of high school band music and old soldiers east across the tracks to cemetery where I’d dive for shell casings after the veterans fired a 21-gun salute with their old bolt-action rifles. Heard the plaintive call of taps. Savored ham sandwiches at the American Legion Hall afterward. Then a swim in Blue Sea strip pit — or “the big pool” in Pittsburg.
Being a boy, and full of the shining harmony of youth, I had little awareness the day was about death and honoring fallen soldiers rather than a marker signifying school was out and summer was coming with its tangle of green and blue glee.
These days it’s quite the reverse. Memorial Day is more dirge, a soft sob of sadness rather than a celebration of impending summer. A day to re-enact the ritual of reading names and dates and placing flowers and prayers on graves. A time to look toward the silhouette of the mysterious, unknown, but inevitable, reality of death.
For some, though, it’s time to break out the boat and head for the lake. Or else buy something at a big sale. My God they’re running sales on everything from negligees to duck decoys!
It can’t be long before morticians get into the act. I can see it now — the big Memorial Day Weekend Funeral and Casket Blowout Sale! LUXURY MODEL FUNERALS 25% OFF. BUY NOW AND SAVE! CASKETS – BUY ONE GET ONE FREE! COPPER • STAINLESS STEEL • HARDWOOD • 20 GAUGE STEEL. DOMESTIC AND IMPORTED. ALSO CREMATION URNS and PET CASKETS. 2009 MODELS MUST BE LIQUIDATED TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE 2010s! QVC will likely get into the act as well. “See how lovely Mary looks lying in the satin-lined model with her matching 14 carat gold bracelet and necklace. Today’s hot pick. 10 easy pays.”
Sounds crazy, I know, but with all the baby boomers passing away in the next 20 or 30 years, competition will be fierce. Heck, you can already buy your casket online.
Sales notwithstanding, most of us will, this Memorial Day, honor the dead in a myriad of traditional ways — by decorating graves, offering prayers and gathering for a meal cooked, as likely as not, on a barbecue grill.
Traveling to and from area cemeteries telling stories about departed loved ones may take the better part of the day, depending on how far apart graves are located. Done, of course, with all the necessary supplies in the car — pruning sheers, trowels, cut flowers, cleaning supplies, potted plants, water jugs, and assorted items that speak of a particular love or relationship.
Some will design flower arrangements at home. Some will put an arrangement together using the provided vase in the gravestone marker. Some will bring cut flowers from personal gardens. Others shop the supermarket or flower shops. Some will bring the favorite flower of a loved one who has passed — or take flowers from their garden. Many will return at Memorial Day’s end to retrieve potted plants and place them around the house or in their garden.
This year, when traveling to the graves, I encourage area residents — and out of town visitors as well — to take some time to visit the Miners Memorial in Pittsburg on west 2nd street between Pine and Walnut.
The Memorial, which opened last July, is home to a bronze sculpture depicting a coal miner returning home from work and nine polished granite slabs, five of which are inscribed with the names of men and boys who worked the mines. It also features a winding path that connects a series of themed kiosks with graphics and oral narratives on various aspects of Southeast Kansas coal mining history. (Not long after the Memorial opened, a woman new to the area told me how grateful she was to have a place to learn about southeast Kansas and take friends to see when they come to visit.)
In closing, here are the opening lines of “Watermarks” by Millo Farneti, a poem that brings to mind the feeling I get when reading headstones in cemeteries and the names of the men and boys engraved on the black granite slabs at the Miners Memorial:
In names there is
Long distance names
seed present with past,
give presence to time,
Note: The Miners’ Memorial has room for 2,000 more names. For more information or to buy a map of the coalfield, visit www.minersmemorial.org or call Louis at 232-1728 or Debbie at 231-7419. To learn more about the Amazon Army, visit www.amazonarmy.com or contact Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org. J.T. can be reached at 231-0499 or email@example.com.