Peonies and bearded iris were blooming on Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) when I was a girl. And it was the day to “decorate the graves”—no parties, no guests from out of town, no picnics or barbeque. It was a solemn day, not a special weekend. Perhaps because the Second World War was still so significant to so many people.
Women did not cut flowers from their gardens for the house—maybe for the church. But on this day, my aunts and grandmother would cut their iris and peonies and share with each other until each woman had enough mixed bouquets to fill enough fruit jars to place one on each grave she needed to decorate. My sisters and I sat in the backseat of the car with jars of flowers in boxes and had been directed by mom to keep them upright and stop them from spilling; a big chore for small girls.
There was no frivolity allowed in the backseat. We were going to honor the people who were dead: my grandparents who were killed in a car crash when my dad was a boy, my cousin’s twin who died when he was a baby, my uncle John, two of my mom’s cousins and the husband of a family friend. This was a day for sadness and grief and remembrance of people who were absent from our lives. There were a lot of people in the graveyard—that’s what we called it—doing the same thing.
Many graves had an official-looking stand with an American flag by the headstone and these seemed to get more attention than those without flags.
People stayed until the men from the VFW came and performed a ceremony in the middle of the cemetery where there was a statue. They carried flags and did special marching steps. I did not understand their place in the ritual of placing fruit jars of flowers on the graves of dead people.
Later, after my father died as a result of an injury he had received in the war, my sisters and I marched with the VFW. My father got one of those medals and a flag by his grave. Then I understood that the special marching and the flags were to honor people who were veterans of all of the wars in this country. And when I looked at all the graves with flags, it made me even sadder to think that these people had “died before their time.”
After a few days the women picked up the fruit jars to be used to preserve food for the winter.
Peonies and bearded iris are two of my very favorite flowers in spite of their role in the solemnity of Decoration Day and all that it meant. I see the first buds of early iris and the beginning buds of peonies as I work in my client’s gardens. There are so many more varieties of both now. When I was a girl my mother had a brownish iris that was considered very exotic! And my grandmother had a white peony that was bigger than any other in the cemetery bouquets.
A tour of Klehm’s Song Sparrow (yes, that is the name of the nursery) online or Schreiner’s Iris Gardens online is a tempting excursion. I looked at each in the winter—dangerous—as I made two very long lists of “needed” plants. Fortunately, I did not place the order.
This weekend is considered the beginning of summer, but for many it is also a time for solemn and respectful remembering.
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067. jeanellemyersfinegardening.com