This weekend, millions of Americans are celebrating one of this country’s oldest and biggest federal holidays–Memorial Day. Originally named, Decoration Day, it was created after the Civil War to honor those who had died in our military service. Today, in cemeteries across the United States, veterans’ and other organizations place small U.S. flags at the graves of those who served in our armed forces. My Dad, along with those of so many others, is among them.
Americans also use this day to decorate the graves of their loved ones and to gather together in cemeteries large and small, to honor those generations who have gone before them. The U.S. doesn’t have, as do many other countries in the world, a day specifically designated as ‘ancestors’ day. Probably one reason for that is because so many Americans don’t even know their ancestral heritage. I am fortunate in that I have the history of my mother’s paternal family dating back to the 1500s. And I know my family in Sweden, from where both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather emigrated during the late 1860s. I have been to visit my family there several times and one year, took with me, my aunt, who, was the second oldest in my mother’s family and who had fond memories of her Swedish-born grandmother and grandfather.
During that trip, now many years ago, we first met my Swedish cousins and went to the home places of both her grandparents. What a thrill for both of us. Shivers shot down my back when I first heard my cousin’s father voice because his sounded so much like that of my own grandfather–who would have been his uncle–,who died when I was only three. We were both excited when the farmer who then occupied the farmhouse where my great grand father had grown up, invited us in and proudly showed us the book that had come with the farm, documenting its history and those who had once owned it. Later on that same trip, we found his name registered with many others who had left Sweden during that time, when we visited the Utvandrarnas hus, or the House of Emigrants in Vaxjo.
Then upon walking around field where my great-grandmother’s had once stood, our family’s Swedish friend and host for much of our stay, motioned for us to “Kommer här.” He was standing next to a thick green bush and when we joined him, he parted the center of the bush with his arms to reveal a small, tarnished bronze plaque attached to a metal pole. The inscription on the plaque took my breath away. It said, in translation, that “Here in this place once lived 1858-1867 Carl Axel Carlsson and his wife who emigrated to North America”.
Carl Carlsson was my great-great grandfather. I still get chills even writing this as I did upon first seeing this. My aunt was nearly in tears. For her, this was a completion of a journey for my great-grandmother who was old enough to remember her Swedish childhood when she left with her family. At age 70, the same age as my aunt was then, great grandmother had written a letter to her family in the old country, expressing her desire to see Sweden once more but knew that she never would as she was now too old to make the long trip. My aunt felt as is she had made the trip for her.
A few years later, my aunt decided to honor her grandparents by designing a new headstone for their graves engraved with the provincial flowers from their respective Swedish homes and an inscription that commemorated their immigration to America. All her brothers and sisters, and their spouses, gathered at the little creek-side cemetery in the Missouri countryside for a private installation ceremony that my aunt had planned. They placed flowers and an American flag on the headstone, they listened as my aunt recounted the story of our visit to the homes in Sweden and her vivid memories of her grandparents. Then they sang a hymn that had been a favorite of her grandparents: Shall We Gather at the River. Tears welled in my eyes as they sang. Afterwards, I surprised my aunt by presenting to her an exact, framed replica of the plaque that we had discovered in Sweden and a photograph of the Carlsson family taken shortly after they had arrived in this country. It was now her turn to be in tears.
Last Memorial Day, my brother and I drove the two hours to the same little Missouri cemetery. We placed flowers on the graves of our family members buried there, stopped by the spot where their two-story wood frame farmhouse once stood and remembered our family, my aunts and uncles, their parents and grandparents, just as they did on that day in the cemetery. The framed plaque hung in the entryway of aunt’s home for years. When she died a few years ago, I was given the plaque. It is now displayed in my entry hall where it reminds me everyday of the trip we made together, the family we loved so much, and of a heritage of which I am proud.