Awhile back I wrote a story about my family recollections of the day and sold it to Good Old Days Magazine. I thought this might be a good time to share it with you. I’ve been fortunate to write short stories that fit this magazine. Old pictures are what jog my memories. I look through my mother’s black and white pictures and some of my own until a story idea comes to me.
1950’s Memorial Day Memories
Just before Memorial Day, my husband, Harold, and I drive to the country cemetery near Keystone, Iowa. It doesn’t take long to put flowers on my parents graves and Harold’s father’s grave and drive 7 miles home. The first time I took Mom to put flowers in Dad’s vase in 1999, she gave me orders when this duty fell to me I should always put red roses in Dad’s vase, because that was his favorite flower. Any spring flowers on her side would do. Doing that for her each year brings back memories about decorating graves when I was a kid.
Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day. My family didn’t think of the day as a summer holiday. We seldom went anywhere with cows to milk twice a day. The day was just what the name implied. A day to decorate graves. For my parents, my brother, John, and me that became an all day process. My parents didn’t have to hunt for the graves. They visited the spots for years and probably helped carry many of those people to their rest. The reason it took all day was we met up with other people doing the same thing. My parents started a conversation and visited awhile. These might have been people my parents knew from way back or just strangers. People weren’t in such a hurry back then. They took the time to visit.
We lived on an 80 acre farm near Schell City, Missouri. My parents, Bill and Sylvia Bullock, supplemented their income by making and selling flower baskets to take to the cemeteries. So after school for a couple months, John and I made carnations from Kleenex. We put two tissues together, folded them up accordion style, tied a wire around the middle and cut off the folded end. Carefully, we separated each ply and pulled the tissues to the middle. After school, John and I wanted to play, but Mom insisted we make a certain number of flowers first.
Mom put together crepe paper roses. She cut petals and stretched them around a wire which she secured with green crepe paper wound down the stem. She used her scissors blade to run over the top of each petal to curl it. To weather proof the roses, Mom melted paraffin in a pan and dunked the flowers. This was the same hot wax Mom poured over jelly to seal the jars so the jelly wouldn’t mold while stored in the root cellar.
Dad cut sticks and used finishing nails to build log cabin style baskets in different sizes. Mom did the flower arranging. The baskets hung by the handles on nails Dad hammered in the back porch wall. Word got around. Two of our teachers, Dorothy Felthoff and Edna Thomas, stopped to buy baskets as well as many other people.
By Decoration Day, we still had unsold baskets. The day dawned sticky hot in the Ozarks. At least, I don’t remember a rainy Decoration Day. John and I had baskets wedged between us in our 35 Chevy’s back seat and around our feet. The country roads leading to the cemeteries consisted of natural rock and potholes. With the windows cranked down to let air in the un-airconditioned car, red dust settled on everything in the car.
Mom fixed bologna sandwiches, potato chips and snowballs for dessert, thermos of coffee and Kool-aid. Bologna tasted better in the fifties. The slices were cut off a large, red wrapper covered roll and sold by the pound. She put our lunch in a cardboard box on the front seat between Dad and her.
My parents pulled weeds and tall grass away from some graves. John and I scattered like a covey of quail, looking at old tombstones. Dad always cautioned us, "Don’t step on the graves." Out of respect sure but since the wooden coffins deteriorated long ago, he said we might find ourselves sinking along with collapsing soil into the graves. Mom’s worry was poisonous snakes like copperheads and rattlers lurking in the shaggy grass. "Watch where you step," she admonished at each cemetery for fear we’d forgotten her previous warnings. Believe me when I tell you, we were more apt to forget Mom’s warning than Dad’s. To this day, we still watch where we step in the cemeteries.
Our first stop, Montevallo Cemetery, began our family tree lesson. The timber lined road led down a steep embankment to a shallow creek. That’s where Dad stopped the car. In the summer, Mill creek was mostly mud which made it easy to walk across. After a short walk through a hayfield, we were at the cemetery. My brother and I were always fascinated by a cement platform, with two white metal chairs and a table on it, over a Montevallo banker/ Notary Public and his wife’s grave. Back in those days, no one ever brought furniture to a cemetery. Years later, I hated to hear the furniture had been stolen.
There was a family connection with this banker. Dad’s father’s brother had a violent disagreement with him in the early 1900’s about Dad’s grandmother’s farm land. Dad’s Uncle Preston went to prison for attempted murder.
Amid Confederate soldiers and bushwhackers, my father’s two grandfathers, Union soldiers, were laid to rest along side their wives and offspring. One homesteader grandfather, Hiram Taylor, returned to farm after the war. The other a homesteader as well, Charles Bullock, was a druggist after the war. Back in the day when plants, gathered from the timber, were turned into potions and compounds, he built a successful hardware/drug store in Montevallo. This civic minded grandfather was on the school board. He believed his children should have a good education.
Next to Charles and his wife, Harriet, was Dad’s father, William (Button) Bullock, who had a reputation for being a partier like his brother, Preston. Button became a druggist after his schooling to be a doctor at St. Louis Medical College was cut short by Charles’s death in 1895. Button took over the hardware/drug store from Harriet. He died at age 50 in 1924. In all fairness, a hereditary heart condition was the cause of death but this fun loving man’s life style may have hastened his demise. Our musically talented Grandpa didn’t miss a summer celebration, and most towns had one. He played the trumpet in Montevallo Order of Modern Woodmen of American lodge’s band during the parades.
Button’s wife, Addie, had to care for my dad and four other children. When the telephone came along, she cleaned out her fancy parlor and had a switch board installed to become Montevallo’s first telephone exchange. Family friend, Eldon Steward, Eldorado Springs, Mo., told me when he was in the army he called home to talk to his mother. The reception was so bad Addie had to relay every word of the conversation. When Addie died in 1968, it was her wish to dig Grandpa Button up and bury them both in the Nevada cemetery. She said the Montevallo cemetery was too far back in the sticks to suit her. She refused to be buried there so Grandpa had to be moved.
Not far down the road, we visited Mom’s two baby sisters graves, died 1919 and 1929, at Olive Branch Cemetery. The church sits close by where Mom’s mother, Veder Bright, walked with her children to church. In that church one of Mom’s brothers, Everett Bright, Nevada, Mo., married his childhood sweetheart, Lois Nichols, who lived close by.
Located east of Montevallo is Walnut Grove cemetery. We’d visit the grave of Isabel Taylor, a Black American. A slave before the Civil War, she was a neighbor to my parents and older brother, Billy, in the late thirties. Isabel walked with a limp, because her owner beat her with a single tree brace.
After the Civil War, "New" Montevallo was built. "Old" Montevallo had been burnt by the Wisconsin 3rd Calvary Regiment. The new hotel needed a cook so the owner hired Isabel and moved her to town. She outlived the hotel, became a nanny until the family’s three boys grew up then the great grandmother of the boys moved in with Isabel to live out their lives together. Isabel had the distinction of being the only Black in town. She was affectionately known by all as Aunt Isabel. In 1943, 95 year old Aunt Isabel fainted on the wood cookstove. She was badly burnt. Montevallo citizens took turns sitting by her bedside, including my parents, day and night until she died. Her grave lays under a cedar tree, surrounded by a square of cement blocks. Not far from her is the grave of the man who hired her as a cook. He paid for her burial.
Next, we went to Virgil City Cemetery. All that’s left of the town is an old shed. We visited Mom’s great grandparents. Her parents sent her to live with John and Alvina Bright on their farm north of Montevallo when she was sixteen. She stayed two years to care for them. Mom missed every day contact with her family, but she loved her great grandparents. Great Grandma passed away in 1932. Great Grandpa moved in with Mom’s grandparents, ending Mom’s caregiving. In those days, families took care of their elderly relatives until they died.
Mom remembered her Great Grandfather as a gentle soul. Rheumatism caused him a lot of pain so he often had Mom rub a homemade liniment on his joints. Great Grandma, Alvina, had the title Blind Grandma tacked on her. So family lore goes, Alvina went blind one day when she stepped out of the outhouse. No one could give me a good reason why. So going blind went into the list of reasons why I worried about using our outhouse along with dive bombing mud dobbers, stepping or sitting on a black snake and the mean rooster laying in wait for me to come out.
Next stop was Moore Cemetery in Nevada to Luther and Flora Belle Bright’s graves. Mom’s grandmother, Flora Belle Bright, was known as Indian Grandma by the grownups in the family. Her heritage wasn’t a matter for discussion with other people though they may have suspected. She was young when Mom’s Grandpa Luther, a farmer, brought her home from Kansas. They became a well respected couple in Montevallo. Getting away from the farm for an all day drive sounded like fun when we started, but as the day dragged on and the cemeteries rolled by, John and I wanted to nap between stops. We’d curl up in the back seat until Dad looked in the rearview mirror. He’d say, "Stay awake." or "Sit up." He feared the old exhaust system was leaking into the car, and we might not ever wake up if he let us alone. By that time, we were tired, sweaty, cranky and asking often, "Can we go home now?"
Before Mom passed away, my husband and I took her back to Missouri. For me and her, this was a going back in time trip as we traveled to all the back roads cemeteries again. This time I took a camera. We owned a camera in the fifties but we didn’t think about taking pictures of our outings in those days. For Mom’s last trip, we bought plenty of silk flowers so she could decorate graves just like in the fifties.
She even put out extra decorations at Olive Branch Cemetery. Eldon Steward’s grandparents, George and Bessie Hiestand are buried by their baby next to Mom’s two sisters. The Heistands were life long friends of my grandparents and parents. After all of us moved to Iowa, the Hiestands took flowers for the Bright babies when they decorated their baby’s grave. This one time, Mom returned the favor.
After ten years of taking care of my father who had Alzheimer’s, Mom enjoyed the journey home to connect with the past which held pleasant memories for our whole family. Because I took her to all those cemeteries again, I hope she came back to Iowa with the peace of mind that she taught her children a life lesson years ago that would stick with them. Remember and honor those that came and went before you, because they had a hand in shaping who you are. And just as important, she wanted me to remember to always put out red roses for Dad and for her any spring flowers would do.