A Festival of Flags

Today is Memorial Day here in the U.S.  It’s celebrated with family get togethers, barbeques, concerts, parades, races, car shows, about anything you can think of to bring people together. Originally, it was created to honor those who served in our nation’s military and that’s still the real reason for the holiday, which, over time, has come to mark the start of summer in most of the country. (Summer comes about a month and a half later to the Pacific Northwest.)

But in small towns across America, people still take time to salute those who served and they do it in ways that aren’t the big spectacles you find in places like Washington D.C. or our other large metropolises.  To me, those small town commemorative services seem more genuine and reflect the true heart and soul of this country. Just ordinary people paying tribute to fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters and cousins who gave their lives in military service to this country.

More than 1700 flags line the paths of the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend.

Northwest Washington state, where I live now, is nestled in a corner of the U.S. considered to be progressive politically and not so prone to an overabundance of patriotic fervor even though the state has a fair number of military bases located here.  Yet we have one of the most moving Memorial Day displays I’ve ever seen.

The Festival of Flags is sponsored by the local American Legion post and a local funeral home. It takes place at noon at the Greenacres Memorial Park located in neighboring Ferndale. I only just discovered this ceremony a couple of years ago when a friend of mine mentioned that she was attending. I suspect that many local residents, like myself, still aren’t aware of it.

A quiet bench offers a place for people to reflect.

The three-hour event starts at noon with food and music, this year provided by the barbershop group known as the Mount Baker Toppers. The opening act is followed by a short remembrance speech delivered by a military officer from somewhere in the region. This year’s ceremony will close with the unveiling of a new World War I memorial and the release of a dove, a nod to the peace that never quite seems to last for long in today’s world.

However the true highlight of the event is the more than 1,700 American flags that flap in the wind and line the pathways of the beautiful cemetery grounds throughout the Memorial Day weekend.  I went out to the cemetery two years ago just to have a look.  It was the year after my Dad had died–hard to believe it’s now three years since his passing–and I felt going out to the cemetery, particularly on Memorial Day, was a way I could remember him and pay my respects since I couldn’t visit the little country cemetery in Kansas where he and my mother are buried.

My first glimpse of the Festival of Flags was from the rain spotted window of my car,.

Memorial Day was rainy and dreary that year. But the day brightened for me when I pulled off the road, drove through the cemetery gates and caught my first view of the red, white and blues through the rain spotted window of my car. I sat quietly in my car reflecting on the year before while hoping that the rain would let up.

The gentle breeze kept the flags furling.

Eventually it turned to a light drizzle so I grabbed my camera, hopped out and began to photograph the flags.  Capturing the flags, so to speak, was a challenge. There were so many. A gentle breeze furled and unfurled the Star Spangled banners as a photographed. I pretty well had the cemetery to myself, except for a handful of people who had come early to set up for the ceremony that followed.

I walked through the forest of flags, not having to say a word to anyone, just me, my camera and, I felt, my Dad.  The time was a welcome break from the usual Memorial Day madness and just what I needed to personally honor the day. Whatever you do this day, I hope you’ll find a way to personally give tribute to those you love who may have given their lives or served time in our armed forces.

Remembering Our Ancestors on Memorial Day

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.

My mother's family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.
My mother’s family gathers at the cemetery to honor her grandparents.

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.

My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather's farm in Sweden.
My aunt and Swedish cousins read the entries in the history book kept by the owner of her grandfather’s farm in Sweden.

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.

My aunt points to my great grandfather's name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.
My aunt points to my great grandfather’s name written in the registry at the House of Emigrants in Sweden.

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”.

My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.
My aunt holds back the bush to reveal the plaque commemorating her family at the Swedish farmstead.

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.

The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.
The family sings an old hymn that was favorite of their grandparents.

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.

 Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.
Cheryl presents her aunt with a replica of the plaque they saw at the farmstead in Sweden.

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.