Friday, February 5, 2010

Folklife Fridays: Getting Ready for Decoration Day

By the late fifties, my grandmother's West Tennessee community had began to see some changes toward modernization. Some of her neighbors had been able to buy cars and telephones, and many had found employment outside of farming. For Grandma, life remained basically the same as it had for decades. She cooked, cleaned, and cared for her family using what the good earth and her husband, Charlie, could provide. Summer months were exhausting for her, with a huge vegetable garden that needed tending, producing abundant vegetables that had to be canned for the winter.

Grandma and her family attended the small Baptist church in the community. When it had been organized about a hundred years ago, the church charter had set aside the fourth Sunday in July for Decoration Day. Its stated purpose was for honoring the deceased and decorating their graves, but the real purpose was a special time to socialize and see people that only attended that one day of the year. It was the highlight of Grandma's year.

Like many of her generation, Grandma had been raised with very little material comforts, and knew how to be frugal. She believed that one new dress a year should be enough for anyone, and she sewed her new dress to be worn on decoration day. Usually a somber navy or black, the dress was made from looking at the pictures in the Sears catalog. Grandma knew it would eventually be recycled to a house dress, and purchased durable fabric that would last for years. The dresses deviated little from the basic design of button front with pockets. She conceded to short sleeves, more comfortable in the sweltering church house, knowing she could always add an extension to the sleeves for the colder months. Sometimes, if Charlie were able to find steady work, she got a new black hat to add to the finery.

Making the dress was secondary to the real job, which was creating loads of colorful crepe-paper flowers to cover the graves. The merchants in town stocked their shelves with every color available in crepe paper, but often, the more popular reds and greens sold out, leaving the procrastinators with blue roses with brown stems. That never happened to Grandma; she had her priorities straight and bought the crepe paper early in the spring, when it first appeared in the stores.

In early July, flower construction began in earnest. Every petal had to be cut out, then scraped with open scissors to make it curl just right. This step required copious amounts of time that Grandma could not spare from the gathering of vegetables, canning, and picking blackberries, so her grandchildren were allowed to participate in this process. The hundreds of petals had to be wired together on a stem of stronger wire, that had been wrapped in green crepe paper. No one could be trusted to do this properly, so Grandma had to do this part herself. She spent every spare minute she could find to make these flowers perfect. All the crepe-paper creations had to be finished by Friday night, leaving Saturday and Sunday morning for preparing food for the immense communal dinner.

In an era where housewives received little recognition for their talents, Decoration Day dinner was an opportunity to demonstrate domestic skills, especially cooking. All the ladies "showed off" by bringing their very best recipes.

The lemonade, chocolate cake, apple pies, and oatmeal cookies could be prepared on Saturday and packed in baskets to get a head start on Sunday's chores. Rising with Sunday's sun, Grandma caught, killed, dressed, and fried three chickens. She boiled green beans and peas, both fresh from the garden. She fried squash with onions, then a bowl of battered okra slices. Corn, both creamed and on the cob, were wrapped and packed with corn bread and biscuits. Her overflowing baskets and cardboard boxes were neatly covered with starched, embroidered tablecloths that would be spread on the tables.

During this frenzy of cooking, Grandma fed her family breakfast, packed the car with the food and flowers, then bathed and dressed. Grandma knew someone with a camera, and always asked that they come by and take a picture of her and Charlie in front of their prized flower garden. Charlie, tall and thin, in a new shirt that looked exactly like all his other shirts, stood soberly beside the smiling Georgia for the photograph.

The short, dusty ride to the church and cemetery seemed longer than it should have. Upon arrival, Grandma rushed to the job of decorating the graves. She had made large clusters of flowers for the special graves; two daughters, her parents, a good friend. Single stems were pushed down on the graves of others. Grandma always made extra flowers for graves that were neglected. After everyone else had finished decorating, she walked around, sticking a red one here, a yellow one there, not satisfied until every mound had been remembered. The small cemetery would be transformed into a colorful garden, and that brought immense joy to the gentle heart of my Grandma.

And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:5