Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Sunday Memory Drawer - When Every Sunday Was Memorial Day

Every Memorial Day, I am amazed.

My route to church takes me past the Los Angeles Veterans Memorial Cemetery.  And, on this one weekend every May, I am astounded to see all the graves above.  Almost overnight, adored by an American flag.  How the heck does this happen?  I mean, there have to be thousands and thousands of graves here.

Last year, I got the answer.  I happen to be driving by the place on Saturday and saw dozens and dozens of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts.  All scampering up and down the rows of tombstones, yet respectfully stopping to decorate each one with its own Stars and Stripes.

If this is indeed a tradition for this cemetery, it's a beautiful one.  The youngest Americans saluting perhaps some of the oldest.

For me, Memorial Day was more than just remembering our nation's soldiers.  It's a time where you should recall all those who has passed on.

But, then again, in my family, every Sunday was Memorial Day.  Because there was no more likely Sunday activity in our house than prepping for that day's sojourn to the cemetery.  

You'd see the signs emerging right after Grandma and Grandpa had cleared their Sunday dinner dishes.  Usually by 1PM.  I'd look out our upstairs kitchen window.  Grandma would be by her flower bed.  Snip, snip, snip.  Then she'd move onto the lilac tree.  It wasn't always in bloom.  But, if it was...

Snip, snip, snip.

Meanwhile, there would the sound of tools being moved in the garage.  Grandpa came out with a shovel, a water can, and a weed whacker.  They'd get tossed into the back of his car.

Yep, they were headed to the cemetery.  To visit everybody.  

Our family was spread out over two places.  The humongous Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  If you were there, you must have died before 1950.  The real oldtimers were planted there.  A foray to Woodlawn often became an event that even my parents attached themselves to.  Smack in the middle of this place was a duck pond.  And a wonderful spot for my dad to play with his Argus Technicolor camera.
This duck feeding thing was a big deal.  Mom dressed up for it.

Personally, I was bored by the treks through Woodlawn.  I never knew the relatives there. Cousins who had died of sinus infections in the pre-antibiotic days of the 30s. One young nephew who had accidentally stabbed himself to death while slicing some pork chops in the butcher shop. 

They were ashes and dust long before I popped out.  To keep my interest level up on those afternoons, my father would always drive me over for a history lesson.  It seems some rich lady back in 1912 had erected a monument to all those who sunk with the Titanic.  
It was a memorial, but I'd attack it like a jungle gym.  I'd be running like a lunatic all over it until my dad would invariably put an end to the mayhem.

"Get off there before you break your neck and we have to leave you here."


These cemetery tours were almost robotic for my grandparents.  They had their set routine as adjunct gardeners for all our dead relatives.

Fill the water can from a nozzle that often just dripped liquid.

Pull out all the weeds that had spring up.

Sometimes, real surgery was needed if you showed up and there was a gaping hole in the grave.

"Uh, oh, Uncle Albert has sunk."

Just like the Titanic.

And that's why another item that was frequently loaded into Grandpa's car trunk was a big bag of dirt.  Handy to fill the holes that were ruining Tante Somebody's eternal rest.

Of course, if this was a Sunday to visit the more recent deceased family members, we'd head north to Ferncliff.

Located on a quiet hill in the even quieter hamlet of Hartsdale, New York, Ferncliff Cemetery is the eternal home of lots of famous people. 

Songwriter Harold Arlen, James Baldwin, ice cream meglomaniac Tom Carvel, Joan Crawford, Basil Rathbone, Toots Shor, Ed Sullivan and his orchestra leader Ray Bloch, director Preston Sturges, Moss Hart and his wife Kitty Carlisle Hart, renowned troublemaker Malcolm X, Oscar Hammerstein, Moms Mabley, and Judy Garland. Beatle John Lennon was cremated there. The list goes on and on and on. 

The place includes also a whole passel of my relatives. And the relatives of several good friends of mine.

And ultimately my own parents.

Indeed, my mom would be happy to know that her top floor studio apartment/niche is a mere three dozen footsteps away from Miss Garland, whom I would have allegedly be named after. If I, of course, was a girl. Not that gender ever made a difference to Judy. 

But, I digress...

We'd know we were headed to Ferncliff on a Sunday if you heard Grandma make the following announcement.

"Come on, let's go see Uncle Fritz."

The eight-year-old comedian in me could not resist the witty retort.  Yeah, but he can't see you. Ha ha. 

My grandmother didn't find the funny in funny.

"Don't be fresh."

We'd tool up to Ferncliff and there was a set order in which folks would be "visited." On our first stop, Grandma would survey the grounds like General Patton.  If a grave needed attention, she would call our.

 ”Pop, bring me the shears!”

And then they would spend an hour manicuring the grounds while I played hopscotch on the bronze nameplates all around me. And then get scolded for that.

”Don’t walk on them. That’s where their head is.”


I'd often wander aimlessly across the street to the big building where everybody had indoor places to repose.  Why?  I have no idea because that mausoleum always managed to give me the creeps.  There would be eerie, somber music that was piped into that joint.  I walked through there wearing imaginary blinders, but always stopping for a second to look at those personalized family crypts.  Some were decorated to look like living rooms with even kids' toys on the floor.

Audible scream followed by my feet running as fast as they could.

There was one Ferncliff grave that my father scared the shit out of me with. It seems some real jerk had a bust made of his head. When he was buried, the bust was placed under the nameplate and you could lift it up to look down. 

One day, my father said, “come on and say hello to Uncle Charlie.” Not knowing the horror to come and being a dumb kid, I did so. Uncle Charlie looking up from his resting place. 

Audible scream all over again! 

Nightmares for a week.

Thanks, Dad.

When the afternoon was over, Grandma would pronounce the end as if she had finished a major project.

"Everybody's fine.  Good kinuck."

I think "kinuck" meant "enough."

As we would drive home, Grandma would often turn to me and ask if I would visit her in the same way every Sunday.

Yeah, sure.

As only it could make sense, my grandparents were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery with the rest of the older folks.  They picked their own plot.  Right next to the fence with the cars racing by on Webster Avenue outside.  I asked them once why she had picked this spot.

"We want to be able to watch all the cars go by."


I don't visit cemeteries every Sunday.  In lieu of pulling weeds, I prefer to remember all here.  On this blog.

Where they still live.

Dinner last night:  Turkey burger at the Arclight.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Say hello to Uncle Charlie."

That's funny.