One holiday that seems entirely different in the Deep South is Memorial Day. Part of the difference is that Confederate Memorial Day is still observed in some places, including Hattiesburg.
National Memorial Day was established as an opportunity to bring a divided country back together. Some places in the Deep South also have been slow to recognize July 4 as a major holiday because of the Siege of Vicksburg. The result has been that those two holidays may be viewed differently here. (Hattiesburg does now have an annual observance at Veterans’ Park for the national holiday.)
On the other hand, the differences may be exaggerated for me because Memorial weekend was one of our family’s most important holidays.
Every year as I was growing up, we spent the weekend at Norcatur, Kanas, where both sides of my family had deep roots as homesteaders. Our mother grew up in Norcatur, while our father grew up on a farm not far away.
Every one of my direct ancestors is buried at the Norcatur Cemetery. As it happens, that cemetery has a long tradition of observing Memorial Day, starting not long after it was established. Not too many years ago, Norcatur Memorial Day was featured on national network news broadcasts as the oldest continuous Memorial Day celebration in the country.
Every year we’d drive to Kansas on Friday afternoon and stay over at Grandma Ward’s house in Norcatur. That evening we kids helped Grandma cut flowers from her garden to take to the cemetery early the next morning to decorate family graves. The cemetery itself was planted with rows of peonies, hopefully in full bloom for this event.
The day of celebration would include a parade of veterans, flag waving children and maybe a band. We’d gather at City Hall on Main Street and march to the cemetery on the outskirts of the small town. I remember veterans in uniforms from the Spanish American War — maybe 1 or 2 — and WWI. Our mother remembered veterans from the Civil War, homesteaders who’d come there after the war.
Most of the men in our extended families had served in WWII, but very few could still fit into any part of their uniforms except their service caps.
At the cemetery, the veterans would conduct the service to honor those who served their country. The flag was presented, taps played and a 21-gun salute fired. It was a solemn occasion followed by all those in attendance milling around, visiting and renewing ties of family and friendship.
Once back in town, all of our mother’s family would gather in the basement community room at City Hall for a reunion dinner. At some time during the weekend, Dad’s Mom would come to Norcatur to join us for a family dinner at Grandma Ward’s house. We would see many of Dad’s family at the cemetery as well.
My years of the traditional Memorial weekend started when I first marched in the parade at 3 or 4. As a teen, I stopped marching, but that was the only part I gave up. We continued to go to Norcatur as we grew up. Part of the tradition was that prospective husbands or wives should attend the event for “family review.”
Going to Norcatur for Memorial Day hasn’t happened much in the ensuing years. The family house is gone, so the only place to stay is the nearby city of Norton, home of my only surviving aunt on either side of our family.
I last attended Memorial Day at Norcatur in 2001 when our mother died. She had been living in Denver and died in January, not a good time for a burial in Northwest Kansas. So she was cremated, and we celebrated her life at a memorial service. That spring we all gathered at Norcatur on Memorial Day to place her urn in the burial site with our father.
My children and my sisters and brother were able to attend. Instead of the family reunion at City Hall, however, everyone gathered at the old Norcatur High School for a community dinner after the ceremony at the cemetery. Even all these years later, so many friends and extended family members came up to our table, always starting by saying as they had all those many years: you must be Marian – or Lee’s – daughter (or son). That part hadn’t changed.
As kids, we used to mimic those aunts and uncles and others, trying to imitate their voices as they would inevitably say, “My, how you’ve grown!” Now I look back with nostalgia, understanding how deep our ties to extended family were and how very important that was to who I am and what I’ve become.