Monday, May 26, 2014

Always peonies on Memorial Day

Dad used to let me go with him in the 1940s when he made his annual trip on Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was called then, to the cemetery where his parents were buried, but when we got there, he always said, “Stay in the car.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

I’d watch him walk across the grass, stop in front of his parents’ gravestone, stand in silence as if thinking, and then stoop to leave a Mason jar filled with peonies.

I often wondered what my dad was thinking when he stood there—because I don’t think he could remember his parents, Warren and Angeline Nixon.  They died two days apart in October 1918, both age 29, of the “Spanish Flu,” leaving six children, the oldest nine, the youngest two months, who were divided between maternal and paternal relatives for safe keeping and raising.

What does a man who became an orphan when he had just turned three think about when he stands at his parents’ grave?

Answers to that question have crossed my mind through the years, but, really, I have no idea because I really believe Dad didn’t remember his parents.  He never told me anything about them other than a few facts that others had told him.  On our cemetery trips he never hinted about what the annual visit meant to him.  I’ve always thought that his wanting me to “wait in the car” meant his thoughts were deeply personal.

Maybe the peonies were a clue to his thoughts.  If our own peonies were dropping petals as Decoration Day approached, Dad would scour the county to find a fresh bunch.  Whatever sense he had of his parents must have been positive—or why would he go to all that effort?  Or perhaps he had some instinctive love for the man and woman who gave him life.

When I walked out to the Shop this morning to get my wheelbarrow and tools to do some landscaping work, I notice that the buds of our red peonies had broken open during the night.  Memories of ancient trips to a New Jersey cemetery—of my dad pausing in thought at his parents’ grave—and of peonies in a Mason jar—flooded my thoughts.

I have no doubt that Dad loved my brother, Jay, and me deeply, as only a parent can, and as Ellen and I love our children, Brian and Lynn. 

Peony blooms last just a few days and are gone.  Love and memories last forever.