Monday, May 28, 2007

Monday Memory: Memorial Day

May 28, 2007

Creighton Clarence and Helen May (Johnsen) Firebaugh

Nelson Andrews and Gladys May (Riley) Cummins

Where I come from in upstate New York, the village next to ours, Waterloo, claims that it is the "Birthplace of Memorial Day." My own hometown takes part in the famous Trout Derby on Memorial Day weekend, when Seneca Lake is buzzing with motorboats and regattas. Here in East Tennessee this day is referred to as Decoration Day as much as it is Memorial Day. Local Yokel JennfromTenn blogged today about her family's traditional Decoration Day, which is the epitome of Southern-ness. They really do visit the gravesites of their families and leave flowers. No doubt southern girls QueenoftheHill and Sharon have similar family traditions. But for me, Memorial Day was a day off from school, a parade in our hot band uniforms, and a late afternoon sail.

I grew up over 800 miles away from my extended family. The roots are long and strong in Southern Illinois: Cummins, Rileys, Firebaughs, Johnsens. Most of them immigrated here in the mid- to late-1800s and planted themselves on farms. No one moved around too much. Dix, Illinois is pretty much made up of Rileys. That's where my Cummins and Riley--the Irish-- kin are buried. The Firebaughs and Johnsens--my German kin-- were in the big city of Mt. Vernon next door, and dozens of stones in the city cemetery bear the Firebaugh name, kept abundant through my grandfather Creighton and his 11 siblings.

But when I was a little over a year old, my family moved to upstate New York. The cemeteries there bear names like Fabrizio, D'Amico, Cecere, D'Allesandro, Principio, Scuzzi, Scaramazzinno, Fospero, Ianapollo. (Imagine my midwestern parents learning to pronounce the names of my classmates!)

I have been to my grandparents' graves once or twice. I have traced their names in stone with my fingers and conjured up images of them and the sounds of their voices. I have stood and looked at a stone and thought, "This is my family. I am one of them." It is not enough, though. I have missed some vital connection because of distance. I have missed placing wildflowers on graves and kissing the cheek of a wrinkled third cousin. I have never heard a story told of my father as a little boy--other than by my father.

My friends think I'm funny because I call a certain local family "my cousins." But he is my kin---although we are fourth cousins or first cousins, four times removed, or something like that---and when you don't have the luxury of being in the midst of your kin, you make the most of what you have.

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