Thursday, May 24, 2007
Once upon a time, people referred to Memorial Day as "Decoration Day." In the aftermath of the War Between the States, Decoration Day was a holiday set aside to honor those who had died during the "Late Unpleasantness." But somewhere along the way, at least for one family living in the rustic wilds of the Ozarks, Decoration Day developed a more general sense. It became a day when people tended to the graves and the memories of all of their family dead, military or civilian. On Decoration Day one decorated the graves of family members; on Memorial Day (to embrace the new name) one remembered them. James Clifton Barber believed in Decoration Day. He believed that the fifth commandment extended even beyond the death of mother and father—even transferred from generation to generation. Last year he ascended to his Savior, and we deposited his remains beneath the stubborn dolomite of the Ozarks near Salado (that's Sal'-ah-doh in Arkansas, not Sah-lay'-doh as in Texas). He is my paternal grandfather. My father predeceased his own father, and the family responsibility passed to my generation. Tomorrow, I go with artificial flowers in hand to tromp through cemeteries in Floral, Hutchinson, McHue, Salado, Jonesboro, and Cane Island. Some whose graves I will decorate, I do not remember personally. Others are but fleeting pixies of my early childhood recollection. And then there are three of my four grandparents (Grandma Barber is still living) and my own father, who have made hallowed ground for me of narrow plots in widely separated cemeteries. I'm taking my son Jim with me. Of course, a four-year-old needs more than cemeteries to make a trip worthwhile, so I've got something planned. I have not alerted my brother and brother-in-law that we'll be in state. We're going to the domestic headquarters of our family business with Jim's camo play tent and tunnels. We're going to enter through the Finished Goods warehouse and sneak across to the Raw Materials warehouse, where we'll quietly deploy the tent in the aisles. From there, Jim plans to stage a surprise invasion of Uncle Blake's and Uncle Ronnie's offices, swords swinging and cap-guns blazing. These are the things that captivate a preschool boy's imagination—we have sat in our headquarters and devised a plan, and now we're going to execute it. I'll drive 900 miles in two days with a four-year-old in tow to visit places where, after all, I don't really believe there is anything beyond formaldehyde and dust. Foolish, isn't it? But these are people to whom I can no longer send a card. Dad would have been sixty-seven yesterday, and I couldn't even pick up the phone and call. So many of the really good ways to show my continuing love and appreciation for these people are no longer possible, but this one remains. And along the way I'll be remembering that this is just the in-between time, waiting until we're all gathered up. So, off we go in the wee hours of tomorrow morning, streaking across Northeast Texas with Beauty and the Beast in the DVD player and a half-devoured McDonalds hash brown firmly grasped by ketchup-stained fingers in the back seat. A little boy will endure stories about a grandfather he never got to meet, and therefore the stories will not seem real to his four-year-old mind. But maybe he will grasp the reality that family is important, both to challenge to impromptu sword-fights while they are here, and to decorate and memorialize when they are gone. Now isn't that a longwinded preacher's way of saying, "I won't be blogging for a couple of days"?