When I was a younger man, I had a chance to visit with my paternal grandparents over a Memorial Day weekend. It was during a season in my life when I was closer to them geographically, and when I had more time in my schedule. I was in between college and seminary and looked forward to having some time with family in Michigan before the summer rush of work and study took hold of me. That was how I found myself awakened early by my grandfather so that we could go down to the local florist ( a family friend as well as a vendor for his funeral home ) to pick up several large flats of geraniums that he later planned to plant on the assorted graves of his and my grandmother's ( and thus my own ) families. This errand was no small project. There were Coopers, Curtises, Wardwells and Shellys...and Hearsts and all such others I can't really remember now. We drove through three counties and half again as many towns to visit all of the gravesites. At each one, my grandmother would tell me a story of this or that ancestor...when they lived, how they died. Sometimes there would be a sad story of early death, like a distant cousin, Leander, who fell off a bicycle in the early days of the last century. Other times, I would hear about how hard it was for the German side of the family in the days of WWI. One great-great-great grandparent had been wounded in the Civil War, and had come home to decades of pain from the bullet that had lodged in his thigh. There was scandal as well. One relative had buried family members at a right angle to others in the family plot thirty years ago. That was a controversy still being discussed, because it had disrupted the order and number of available plots that were remaining in that section of a graveyard in which family had been interred since 1835...an unbroken line of Shellys from one end of the cemetery to the other.
All of these stories worked their way into my own memory as my grandfather drove us from plot to plot, from graveside to graveside. Each geranium was a gift to, and an acknowledgment of, those who had gone before. We are not talking about the "best and the brightest." Most of my ancestors were what most would call simple folk. They were farmers and shop keepers, teachers and merchants. Most had at least a high school education, with my father's generation being among the first to obtain advanced degrees. Still, all of them knew and loved life. Most-good Methodists that they were-also knew and loved God. As I pushed the flowers into the dirt, cleared the stones and traced names and dates with my fingers I gave thanks for their witness. Remembering those who have gone before is important beyond words...because if it weren't for them we would not be here. That is a pretty standard assessment...but I also, then and now, had another thought. Someday, I would be one of those, asleep in Christ, who would perhaps be honored in the way my grandfather chose to lead us that day years ago. A simple geranium, perhaps a few words about what my life was like, where I lived and traveled with my wife. My work and witness in Christ, even.
Memorial Day is not just a day when we remember and give thanks for those who have offered their lives that we might live. Yes, that is paramount to the day's observance...
It is also a day to reflect on our own lives and to wonder a bit about how God is asking great things of us. Large and small, each life matters. My grandfather and grandmother taught me that. It didn't matter that how distant a relative it was to us in terms of blood or marriage. What mattered is that we remembered the whole family as best we could.
The day ended in a remote little section of the county my family had lived in for over a hundred and twenty-five years. Just outside of a small cluster of houses was a deserted burial ground. It was mowed, but not particularly well-kept. We were there to put the last couple of pots of geraniums on the graves of a couple of obscure cousins.
We we walked to the site, white granite markers eroded by wind, water and weather acting as our guides, I became aware of an abundance of small, blue flowers. There was a ground cover that had overwhelmed and choked out the grass. The whole burial ground was covered, an almost indigo carpet. It was beautiful, and lonely...and a reminder. God places life and beauty all around us, even in places where death can accumulate. I was jarred out of my reveries and the Memorial Day ritual for just a second and found myself utterly in the moment.
My grandfather died a few years ago and though my grandmother is in good health, she is no longer able to make that sort of trek again. Still, I realize that today, though I am miles away and years past that moment, I have at least the time this morning to visit those gravesides in my morning prayer time...to take some time to remember, visit, and at least in my heart place a small flower on the place each ancestor has in my own experience of life. May I always remember...and when I am gone, may the grace of God allow one or two to remember our generation as well.