The Memorial Day weekend I graduated high school, was the last time I saw my Ohio cousins for 54 years.
That coming fall, I went away to college, and never lived back at my parent’s home again.
And, without meaning to, never showed up at another of our Thorpe family reunions which were piggybacked onto the Memorial Day weekend.
Which was a pity because I missed out on a sense of belongingness and acceptance that extended family connections often provides.
Back then, Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was then called, honoring the memories of brothers, sisters, parents and past generations of our ancestors who had given their lives in wars – from the Civil War to the Korean War – was an emotional undertaking for our parents and grandparents…
Being a self-absorbed kid, who hadn’t yet felt the pain and heartache of losing someone in service of our country, I completely missed the sadness and longing that must have cast deep shadows over an otherwise raucously fun weekend family reunion.
And, fun times is how I remember those happy days of a buncha cousins showing off and trying to top each other’s incredulous stories about things we’d done and seen – supposedly, that is.
My Dad’s branch of the Thorpe family had somehow taken root in the vicinity of Athol, Kentucky.
This area was, and is today, a place where the economic outlook was far too narrow to measure.
And, showing off their excellent judgement, everyone but my Daddy, got the hell outta there and sneaked up north for high-paying factory jobs.
Yet, like thousands of southern families who also migrated northward for jobs, our aunts and uncles faithfully returned to their roots to honor the expectations and teachings of their Mamas and Papas.
My Daddy, except for an ill-fated stint in Michigan, never lived more than 3 miles from the family farm he was raised on. He, and definitely Mom, could surely have had easier lives if he’d followed his siblings.
He never said, but when I became a father myself, I sometimes wondered if he ever regretted sticking it out in KY when his construction jobs forced him to live weeks at a time away from his wife and 6 kids.
I never had the chance to ask him, because cancer took him away before I was smart enough to put myself in his shoes…
Anyhow, because there’s no earthly reason for anyone in their right mind to visit Lee County Kentucky, there were only two places for our visiting Ohio families to stay: with us, or until a debilitating stroke forced her to come live with us, at my paternal Grandmother’s old place.
Anyway, for me, Memorial Day was a weekend of 5 or 6 cousins laying head to feet in one bed and trying to keep their laughter and giggles down so our parents would stop threatening us.
It was also a time of knowing I belonged in a big family who knew everything about me and still cared how I did despite my many shortcomings…
Unfortunately, that realization, as is most of the salient parts of this story, is one of those ‘things’ we label as ‘hindsight’.
Speaking of showing off and tall tales, if you add drinking, target shooting and some drag racing, that would be an accurate description of how the Thorpe men spent most of the holiday weekend.
Other than catching some eye-rolling and pointed ‘looks’ over some man’s ribald comment, I don’t recall any misbehavior from the women.
I do remember how sweet and pretty I thought they were. And that they cooked – a lot.
Overhearing my Mom talking after the fact, I figured there must’ve been some drinking and one upwomanships going on, but I was too busy having fun to notice.
Decoration Day itself was an all day outdoor feast with various contest type games that were set up for different age groups and took place at Grandmother Thorpe’s until her stroke.
It was then moved to Great Uncle Johnny’s which was just down the road from our house.
Older kids watched younger ones. Mama’s watched the older kids. Papas drank, bragged, argued and seemed to shoot a lot of guns.
I don’t necessarily trust my memory, but I remember the day as loud, fast-moving and joyously happy…
Until we loaded up flowers and wreaths and headed out to the family cemeteries.
It’s a funny thing. I never once knew when the adult men sneaked off and spruced up the graveyards. But, every single year when we got there, they had everything looking clean and neat.
Which brings us back to why Memorial Day was a serious business for the Thorpe family…
Although I wasn’t yet aware of it, each of us had lost a loved one in the service of our country.
Our celebration feast may have been raucous, but our time at the cemetery was solemn and hushed affair until someone told a funny story about a lost cousin, uncle, nephew, son, brother or father.
One story usually prompted another.
And in the midst of bittersweet memories, you could hear quite laughter and sighs…
And always, the muted sounds of tears and regret.
Back then, I didn’t understand.
And, I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then…
Have a safe Memorial Day 2017.