Memorial Day Memories
My mother’s funeral had been a couple weeks ago and as the end of the month neared, I could no longer put off cleaning out her apartment. My parent’s bedroom had always been off limits to my brother and myself and when she left the family house after my dad died, we moved the boxes she had packed without peeking and without any questions. So I had put off the task, not wanting to be caught going through her things and hear her tsk and call me a little sroka. Eighty some years of living and there was not much of value-costume jewelry, mementos from trips which no one had ever seen as they had been protected, hidden in a drawer, stacks of recipes clipped and saved and never used. In the bottom drawer of the dresser were fancy holiday sweaters and some shoeboxes. She and I shared a love of shoes, so I eagerly opened one of the boxes expecting a tiny size six glittery pair of heels from her dancing days. No shoes-just scraps of papers with writing-song lyrics, many from the forties, inspirational sayings and some hand written poems along with newspaper and magazine clippings and pictures of hairstyles or clothes. Tears filled my eyes as I realized this was her secret, private self that she had never shared with me and probably not with anyone. Her dreams and hopes. I carefully sifted through them wondering if she had looked at them from time to time or if she had one day closed the box forever.
A yellowed, brittle newspaper article with a picture of a young man, dressed in a military uniform caught my eye. Stephan Kowalski, born November 2, 1920 and died June 6, 1944. My first thought centered on the loss of a twenty-three year old young man. Dead forever before he really had a chance to live. A local boy who made the paper for the last time. I studied his face and a different picture came to me. Almost forgotten from years ago. A headstone. Simple gray granite block engraved with “Stephan Casimir Kowalski, Urodzony I Zmarly: 2 Listop 1920 – 8 Czerw 1944, Syn, Brat, R.I.P.” The soft sunshine and warm breeze of the May day contrasting with the sorrowful look on my mother’s face as she knelt down to place her bouquet of lilacs on the grave. And I standing silently beside her, bending to plant the small flag into the grass.
Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was formerly known, had been around since the Civil War and gave communities a chance to give tribute to those who had fought for our country. Celebrated at that time on the thirtieth of May, it also marked the unofficial beginning of springtime. Every little town had a parade and families visited the graves of their relatives. Flowers were planted or left in vases by the headstones, leaves and twigs picked up and the grass trimmed. Some left little trinkets having special meaning for the visitor and the deceased. After the work and the cleanup, then it was off to the park for a picnic. Most of the time the weather cooperated, but in any case, winter was over and everyone was looking forward to warm temperatures and planning for the summer.
Since my mom and dad had grown up pretty much in the same neighborhood, the graves of both sides were in the same cemetery. My dad always had a struggle to find the plots since, of course, there were additions from year to year. I had to ask what the words on the gravestones meant, not because I was too young to read, but because they were in Polish: rok, matka, ojciec. My favorite was finding that the word for “brother” was brat. Rather than being a somber day, it was like a trip to visit distant relatives.
The weekend after the holiday, my dad and brother would go on their first fishing trip to a little lake north of the city. They would leave early before the sun rose and get back after dark. I guess it was a man’s spring bonding ritual, as I was never invited. Instead my mom and I would have our own special day. My mom would pin curl my hair and let me pick out my favorite dress. I would sit on the toilet seat, watching her put on her lipstick in the bathroom mirror, then hand her a tissue so she could blot. Depending on which flowers were in bloom, she would cut a bouquet of peonies or lilacs or hyacinths wrapping them in wet tissues and give them to me to carry. The two of us would walk to the nearby drugstore and stop at their soda fountain. My mom would always order a cherry Coke and let me choose either an ice cream soda or a milkshake-a real treat! Then to the bus stop. We looked good in our spring dresses carrying our flowers and some cars driving by would honk their horns. My mom said to ignore them, but I wanted to wave at them.
I could tell when we were close to our stop, I saw the rows of headstones in the green grass on the left side of the road. This was a cemetery, but not the one where our family was buried. My mother said it was special, but to me it looked pretty much like where grandma and my two grandpas were. Mom held my hand as we crossed the street and entered under the iron archway decorated with leaves and vines. She never hesitated, turning right then two lefts and found the grave marked for “Stephan Kowalski”. It looked manicured and there was a vase of still fresh flowers in front of the stone. My mother knelt on one knee and traced the letters of his name, then laid the flowers in front of the vase and stood silent and solemn. I planted my little flag in the grass and reached for her hand again. She gazed down at me and smiled, but her eyes looked sad. After one last glance at the headstone, we made our way out back under the arch to the bus stop.
I think it was the year I was ten, my brother joined the Venturing Scouts. Their first outing of the summer season was scheduled at the end of May, so my dad and brother’s annual springtime fishing trip was postponed. I had hoped to sub for my brother, but that was never mentioned. On Memorial Day my mom, dad and I set off on the annual visit to the cemetery armed with our garden tools. A bright warm day, we drove with the windows open, this year the smell of geraniums filled the car. It seemed strange in the back seat without my brother. Maybe to fill the silence or because no one would punch my arm and tell me I was dumb, but I chattered nonstop. The thought came to me that this year without the fishing trip, my mom and I would also miss our special day. I asked when we were going to visit Stephan Kowalski’s grave and take him flowers.
Silence followed my question. My dad turned to look at my mom who looked down at her lap. I leaned forward hanging onto the seat back and tapped my mom’s shoulder. I asked if we were going to take him geraniums, too. My mom turned to me slowly saying, “We’ll see.” My dad’s eyes were back on the road, his jaw clenched. I sat back and rambled on about all the fun things I wanted to do during summer vacation.
My mom and I never did go that year to Stephan’s grave. In fact, we never went ever again. Of course by the time I was eleven and beyond, most special days were spent with my friends instead of riding the bus with my mom. And truthfully I forgot about him. My family kept the Memorial Day tradition every year, getting together for the cemetery visit and a picnic, until we were visiting my dad’s grave and now next year mom’s.
I studied the young man’s picture on the old newsprint. A happy face with a smile that went all the way to his eyes. Beneath the picture at the bottom of the shoebox, one more treasure. Folded in half, a letter. Nice handwriting, but not my mother’s. I hesitate, not sure if I should look at something so personal. My eyes fill with tears as I skip down to the end- Love you forever and forever and forever, Stephan.