Memorial Days past: memories of flowers and family

Editor’s note: The following column was originally printed in May 2018. While Memorial Day is Monday instead of a week away and circumstances like traffic flow and COVID-19 are different now, the sentiments are still the same.

By Dennis Minich

Next week I-49 will become a tad more difficult to navigate as legions of lake lovers will take to the highway complete with boats, trailers, motorhomes and ATV vehicles in tow.

Fortunately, the rerouting of traffic is complete, but I am sure the missing bridge will create some difficulty for some. But even without the added inconvenience, the highway can become a hassle during lake season.

While I was working in Kansas City, I always dreaded the drive home on the Friday before Memorial Day because even with no accidents, my 50-minute drive routinely turned into a two-hour ordeal.

We now remember Memorial Day as the “unofficial start of summer.” I don’t know if this was always a thing. Back in the day (yes, I am old) Memorial Day wasn’t the beginning of summer, at least not that I knew. Usually, there was still a couple days of school left after the Monday holiday so you had the day off then moved on.

What I remember about Memorial Day is that it was a very somber time for my parents. With the three-day weekend, we had time to visit cemeteries. My dad’s family is mostly buried in the Kansas City area while my mom’s are in Benton County. The Benton County cemetery we visited when I was young has been moved because it is now about 60 feet under Truman Lake.

The annual routine was pretty much the same. Mom would go out to the backyard and harvest a bunch of peonies and roses. We would then wrap coffee cans with foil. Then off we went. Once at the cemetery the cans were filled with water and flowers.

In Kansas City, my dad would just stand and stare at his parents’ graves. He never really said much, he would just stand there and stare. I remember once he put an arm around me and said, “That’s my mom and dad.” He said no more. We then visited our other relatives, many who had died years before my birth. I would hear the stories of who they were, how they died, memories which were special to my dad, uncles and aunts, but held little meaning to me. The next trip was to Warsaw and my mom’s emotions were much more telling. Having lost two siblings early in life as well as her parents, Mom couldn’t complete the decorating ritual before having to pull out her handkerchief. Despite coming from a large family, she especially mourned a brother lost in her elementary school days.

After completing the decorations at all the cemeteries, it was then an official part of the day to take pictures. The pictures were almost always the same, headstones with the current crop of recently cut flowers. There were usually group shots of family that participated in the yearly trip. Ironically, many of the remaining family pictures are those taken on Memorial Day.

That was it. Memorial Day didn’t have anything to do with lakes. I don’t recall ever having a barbecue and there were certainly no parties. It was simply a time to go decorate. I was always impressed with the flags on graves. My mom explained those were people who had served in the military. Even as a child, I knew those people were special. It is important we never forget how special they are.

Now I look back. Having lost my parents, a sibling and my wife, I understand why those trips were so special to my family. For 364 days a year you still think about those loved ones, they are still part of your life. For one day, you can do more, even if it is just cutting some homegrown flowers and putting them in a coffee can.

I haven’t made it to Warsaw in many years. But I still meet with Dad’s family and visit the family resting in Kansas City, even the ones I never met. It is not a day on the lake, but in my mind, it was never meant to be.