WAYNE, Neb. — Memorial Day. Time for campouts, lawn chairs, backyard horseshoes, ketchup and mustard on everything, and for Nebraskans, please-oh-please, the beginning of something resembling spring or summer.
But for me, this one is all about coming home from California to flowers, flags and some unexpected firemen.
I was out west researching some family history and found myself at one of L.A.'s famous landmarks — the Forest Lawn cemetery where notables like Michael Jackson, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart are interred. Aside from the big names, Forest Lawn also is home to more than 250,000 graves and memorial sites for the not-as-famous. And like many things in big cities, the numbers mean that a personal touch is sacrificed for efficiency, so the cemetery is for the most part acres of uniform inlaid, mowable grave markers — names and dates only — going on row after row as far as the eye can see.
Among them, two long-lost family members who died in the 1930s and who, if not for me turning over some very old rocks and flying 1,500 miles to see them, would have rested on in obscurity, without a visitor, as they have for the last 75 years. I was so happy to be there, to let them know they were not forgotten.
They were in a beautiful spot, but it was hard in that sea of endless grass to feel the connection I was hoping for — the connections I see so often when I walk through our cemetery here, the connections that happen all the time in graveyards in small towns all across Nebraska and America. I anticipated feeling a lot of different things on that visit, but I didn't expect to be thinking so much about the little cemetery back home in Wayne. Yet once again, sometimes we have to go away to appreciate what we've left behind.
Cemeteries always give us basic history, but our small-town graves seem to tell life stories. I've always marveled how people here chisel into their unique headstones the names of children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters. They memorialize marriages with wedding dates, entwined rings, “together forever.” Some leave behind their favorite sayings or prayers, and I've chuckled at more than a few with their favorite college football team — you know the one — set in stone for the ages.
I walk often in our cemetery because, like in many farm towns, it's one of the few truly open, unplanted and peaceful public spaces, and I always love seeing the occasional visitor, laying flowers or just being there, remembering. The mood is never sad. On the contrary, the joy in what these people do is tangible and infectious.
Then around Memorial Day — or Decoration Day as Midwesterners always correct me — I have even more to enjoy. The landscapers seem to work overtime, people with out-of-state license plates ask me for directions, potted geraniums and artificial bouquets pop up everywhere with wreaths, mini-windmills and chimes. Veterans clubs are out in force, planting little flags and tending the graves a bit more carefully.
But this year I saw something new — a few men posting red flags with yellow markings. At first I thought they were on veterans' graves, possibly Marine Corps flags heralding Semper Fi. But then I saw them on other graves and so I looked closer, and what I saw warmed my heart even more. A ladder, an ax, a hose and a hat. Loyal To Our Duty.
They were flags for our other heroes — for our firemen.
For all those brave volunteers who rushed when the sirens wailed, day or night, who trained and worked to save people when disaster threatened or struck. And here were their successors planting flags in honor. Honor and gratitude.
It struck me that those flags were as much for today's firefighters as for all those who served Wayne's volunteer department over its 90-year history, a small sea of fluttering standards honoring the personal and collective relationship all first responders have with their communities.
So many things coalesced just then — realizing even more why our small towns and cemeteries are so special, that they both bring us together to make connections in life and death that aren't always possible in bigger places. They call us, through some force you can't name as much as feel, to go and spend some real time. To honor lives and stories. To plant a flag. To remember.
And on this particular day in northeast Nebraska, to remember and say thank you.
Happy Memorial Day.
Pamela Everett is a freelance writer and an assistant professor at Wayne State College, where she teaches criminal law and legal/justice classes. She moved to Wayne from California, where she practiced law for 14 years.