My Nannie Margaret used to call Memorial Day, “Decoration Day.” As a child, my mother would drive her to cemeteries to place flowers, American flags and/or plant geraniums at the graves of family members and friends. I was fascinated by the stories about these people I never knew but who were so important to Nannie and her absolute devotion to remember them on “Decoration Day.” I heard about “So-and-So” who was buried in a plot even though “Another So-and-So” didn’t want them to be and how the grass wasn’t cut right around the headstones.
As I grew up, I’ll be honest, I found her annual trek visiting cemeteries, depressing, and after my mom passed away, I was thankful my cousin LaTonya or Uncle Eddie and Aunt Mary Sue took over the duty of driving Nannie to the graves of loved ones. It should be noted I faithfully continued to drive her to the grocery store every week and endlessly heard about how expensive things were getting.
This week I attended my first post COVID-19 graveside service. My Aunt Sharon passed away after a sudden and brief illness. She was receiving care in a facility hours away from her home in Point Pleasant. Because of the virus (which she didn’t have), her immediate family could not visit her due to restrictions meant to keep everyone safe, including Sharon. Each day, her children waited by the phone for news from the doctor and though there were days of hopeful news, ultimately the news was bad. The hospital allowed her immediate family to visit with her towards the end and at the end, she was not alone. But, I think about Aunt Sharon being alone for those few weeks and though I’m sure she received good and compassionate care, it was care from strangers. There’s nothing like family holding your hand or filling your cup with ice when you’re stuck in a hospital bed with the uncertain. She didn’t deserve that. No one does. The doctors, nurses and aides don’t deserve that extra burden of emotional strain either. Sharon’s immediate family didn’t deserve to love her from afar. Quite frankly, these are the things that make me angry and frustrated about the way we are all forced to live right now. That’s not meant as a political statement either so don’t attach that, or me, to any bandwagon. That’s me being human and scratching my head.
Being in the newspaper business, I work with funeral homes often. I texted a friend at the funeral home handling Sharon’s arrangements and asked what the procedures were now for visitation and a graveside service? The procedure was no more than 25 people in the chapel, masks were recommended. Can you imagine a poor funeral director having to count heads and work as a sort of “bouncer” to keep those paying their respects behind the velvet rope? I truly feel sorry for them as they try to navigate serving grieving families while keeping those families and visitors safe based upon the guidelines they’ve been told to follow; guidelines that by today, I’m sure, have already changed.
My sister Ashley and I opted to only attend the graveside service. The procession was “normal” and I have to say, I was comforted by motorists in Point Pleasant who all still pull over to the side of the road as we passed by them. I was in a funeral procession last year in Huntington and on Route 60, no one stops for anything, in fact, we had a vehicle pull into the procession line just to get a little further ahead. That was “pre-virus” which proves you can’t blame COVID-19 for everything “stupid” in this world.
As Ashley and I pulled into the cemetery, we noted it was nearly 22 years to the day that our own mother had passed away from breast cancer and how, like Aunt Sharon, they were both going to be in the same cemetery. As Ashley’s “mom van” came to a stop, we were trying to pick out which marker was our mother’s from a distance and Ashley said, “probably the one without anything in the vase.” And, she was right. Neither of us had been there in a long time though each of us thinks of our mom often. I’m sure there are several loved ones with empty vases in cemeteries everywhere; loved ones who are brought flowers each day from afar by someone simply remembering something they miss about that person. The latter is just as valuable as silk flowers.
Right out of a movie, the rain absolutely poured as we walked to the graveside service. Once at the tent, I noticed people weren’t exactly sure how close to stand. The funeral director asked everyone to get as close as they felt comfortable. Sharon’s daughter motioned for people to come closer as well. No grieving daughter should ever have to ask that in that circumstance and this was no shortcoming on the mourners’ part. I presume, like me, they just didn’t know how to give Sharon’s family what they needed. After all, we’ve been told for months to stand six feet apart to protect those we care about.
As the rain beat down on the tent and umbrellas like a drum, I tried to make out what was being said by the two pastors but it was difficult to hear it all. In between the pieces I could hear, I thought about how my Aunt Sharon was a hard worker and could make the best pot roast I’ve ever had. As my Aunt Mary Sue said, if you called her at 2:30 in the morning and needed her, she’d figure out a way to get there and, above all, she loved her children and grandchildren. My thoughts were interrupted by making out the Lord’s Prayer and everyone started saying it in unison, drowning out the rain. After the service concluded, I made it over to my cousins to give my condolences on the loss of their mother. On the way, in my head, I was asking myself, “is it Ok with them to hug them?” Thankfully, and without asking for permission, they openly and graciously gave it to me without saying the words and accepted the hugs, which in those moments, mean more than words.
So this “Decoration Day” I will retrace my Nannie’s steps through the cemeteries with flowers for those we have lost. If you have a chance to fill that empty vase this weekend, take the opportunity to do so in whatever way you can.
I think I’ll make a “Decoration Day” pot roast in honor of Aunt Sharon. It won’t be as good as her’s, but I’ll try.
Stay safe everyone.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing, which includes the Point Pleasant Register, Gallipolis Daily Tribune and The Daily Sentinel.