A Sentimental Journey to my Hometown

A Sentimental Journey to my Hometown

Northern Minnesota, population 350, circa 1945

Remembering Memorial Day

 

         For me, nothing evokes Memorial Day more than the aroma of lilacs and crab apple blossoms.  Add a small town cemetery with flags whipping in the breeze and the memory of Floyd Skeesuck playing a somber rendition of “Taps” on the trumpet he takes out once a year, and the memory is as fresh in my mind as the day it happened each year of my childhood.

         Much of our excitement centers around the holiday weekend visit from our city relatives.  On Friday evening our Aunt Liz and Uncle Arvid arrive from Minneapolis, along with our cousins, Ardyce and Jerry.  From that point on it’s non-stop talk and laughter between my mother and Aunt Liz, who were born on the tail end of a family of 14 children.

         From their Danish immigrant parents they have inherited warmth, sensitivity, and the ability to savor life.  They are masterful story tellers, and long after the rest of us have gone to bed, Mother and Aunt Liz sit up late at the kitchen table.  From my bed on the living room couch I hear them chatting away and stifling laughter so their husbands won’t call out from their beds to “Pipe down!”

Sometimes just as the stories are getting good, they switch to Danish, and the rest of us are left to wonder what is so sad or funny or scandalous.

Food is one of the main attractions of the weekend.  Whether we have company or not, every bite of our food is from scratch.  When Dad delivers Skelly fuel oil out in the country, he might come home with a couple of hens from a farm.  He wrings their necks, but I am not allowed to watch.  It’s too brutal for girls, Mother says.  But my older brothers get to watch.  I’m allowed to see her singe off the feathers, though, and the sickening odor is like nothing I’ve ever smelled before or since.

Breakfast is leisurely when the relatives come, with farm fresh eggs and crisp bacon from Bailey’s Store.  Mother makes oven toast or serves her homemade orange rolls and pulls out a jar of her tangy pin cherry jelly.

The adults sit at the breakfast table for hours, talking and drinking pot after pot of strong, boiled coffee.

On Memorial Day we go out to the cemetery and file past the graves of my baby sister—dead at six weeks from whooping cough—and my Uncle Alfred, his life cut short by a bullet that discharged from my cousin’s rifle as he cleaned it at the end of a day of deer hunting.

Pastors from the two churches in town (“our church” and “the other church”) stand by the flag pole and offer prayers and gratitude for the “boys” who gave their lives in the wars.

Mrs. Barchus, our town’s first Gold Star Mother, sits on a folding chair in the place of honor, wearing comfortable shoes and a print dress with a carnation pinned to the lapel.

The men take off their caps and hats.  We place our hands over our hearts and sing, “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain…”

The birds join in and I inhale a deep whiff of the aroma of lilacs from a nearby bush.

When we get to the third verse, I sneak a peak at Mrs. Barchus.

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!  America!  America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea.”

After “Taps” we head home to a chicken that has been roasting in the oven, mashed potatoes, and gravy as rich and smooth as melted caramel.  Mama unmolds a quivering lemon Jello salad with grated carrots and crushed pineapple.

For dessert there’s Mother’s coconut cream pie with crust so flaky it barely holds together.  It’s topped with cream that has been skimmed off the top of the milk bottle, whipped with an egg beater, and sprinkled with toasted coconut.

After pushing ourselves away from the dining room table, we say sad and lengthy goodbyes to the city relatives.  They drive out past the cemetery and turn onto Highway 371.  Mama waits until she spots their maroon sedan half a mile away across the clearing, and she waves a dish towel as a final goodbye until their car disappears into a grove of jack pines.

She sighs and slowly goes inside to clear the table.

 

                                             Sharon Anderson Sheppard

                                                            The Country Cousin