To me, Memorial Day means peonies.
When I was a girl living at home we went to Shenandoah, Iowa every Memorial Day, where my dad was raised and his mother still lived. It seemed like a long way away to us. We would spend the night there, in Grandma Black's one bedroom apartment on the third floor of an old style apartment building. One that was built when they built things to last, with 12" baseboard trim and 4" window and door trim. There was a little slide that the paper boy and mail man could open, I think I could have fit through it. I was skinny in those days. (After all, I did get through a chicken door once!) There weren't any elevators or door buzzers, either. This was still the 70's and things were quieter, and safer then. I enjoyed running up and down those stairs. I didn't run too hard, we weren't allowed to do that. We slept all over the floor, I assume mom and dad had something else. I don't remember that. I do remember lying in my sleeping bag, with the windows open and night sounds coming in, and then we'd hear a shrill whistling that sounded like like something racing from way up in the air to the ground. But it was just owls. I'd like to hear them again.
Our cousins from Ames, and the married one from Des Moines would usually come up the morning of Memorial Day, and Grandma would dig out her green metal vases with the spikes on the end. Then we would go to Aunt Alice's for the peonies. For some reason we never called our aunts and uncles by anything but their first names. But our great aunts, now, we called them Aunt. My dad was Uncle Tommy to all his relatives, which we thought was funny, but we didn't try it ourselves, we knew better.
This was one of my favorite parts. We would go out to Aunt Alice's backyard, after we all came in through the back and sat down to visit a bit, and cut peonies. Well, the adults did, and squeezed them all scrunchily into buckets. I can still hear that sound in my head, just like those owls, and like the gate at my Grandpa Appleman's. An ever enduring memory.
One year there weren't any peonies. I think they were ruined by hail. Some years they weren't quite ready, and were taken in just breaking buds, but this time there were not enough. It really took some scrounging around and all of Aunt Alice's irises that year, but there were still flowers to put on the graves.
Then we loaded up the station wagon with flowers and buckets, vases and knives, kids and lunch, and drove out to the cemetery. I can to this day, see where we parked and walked up to the hydrant to fill our buckets. But, from there, I couldn't walk now to where we put flowers on the graves, of Dad's grandparents, his father, the middle brother that died just after birth, and other relatives that I don't remember now, since both sides of Dad's family were from that area, and his brother's wife, too.
I remember the flags, the flowers, the being told which side of the graves to walk on. This was important business to that family and you jolly well better treat it as such. I remember the one grave a little farther away, of a man who had no family to come and put flowers on his grave, and my grandfather promised him that someone of his family would always remember.
Then we went to picnic. We would go to a park that was across from, my aunt's sister's house, and they would come. My dad's brother had six kids, and one of them was married with two, and then we would add some more kids from this house, and we would talk and play and eat until time to go home.
I don't go with Mom and Dad to Iowa anymore. I think almost every year some of the cousins that still live in Iowa make the trip and Dad goes sometimes, too. I didn't make it a tradition in our little family. It wasn't in Jim's. We've visiting the graves of his family, just not at Memorial Day time. Anytime we would plan to go, it would rain, and this year, we didn't plan. So, we remember anyway, even if they don't have peonies by their headstones.
These are our peonies, just in time for Memorial Day. I love them. They mean remembering to me.