on memorial day

I am a day early with this, but it is on my mind and I shouldn’t let it go to waste.

memorial day is coming up in a few hours. memorial day means a lot of things to a lot of people. the neighborhood pool is opening up down near my dad’s in Alexandria. someone will pay attention to the Indianapolis 500. many hot dogs and much watermelon will be eaten. the summer unofficially arrives. and on monday, mom will drive around Indiana and visit the family graves.

I’ve been recently writing a lot about my mother and driving around, separately. and now I’m about to join the two. what kind of complex is this? lord only knows.

but really, those two subjects were the common denominators on my memorial days while growing up. every memorial day, mom would take my sister and I to the church cemetery in Lake County on Monday morning, usually with our grandmother in tow, and we would inevitably arrive late for the blessing that the parish priest would perform over the headstones.

this wasn’t unusual, as we arrived late to church under any and all circumstances. I was an altar boy for … at least five years? and I have no idea what happens during the first fifteen minutes of service. really, no kidding. I’d always sidle in late.

but I digress. the church cemetery is on Ridge Road in Calumet Township, and if you don’t slow down and look for the sign you’ll go right past it. the family plot hangs right above the road. no doubt it wasn’t that busy when it was picked out back in the day, but despite the busy four-lane thoroughfare, it is a pretty spot.

so once there, we would fall into the back of the crowd following the priest through the graves. it is an ethnic church, and an ethnic cemetery — the markers read like a Ukrainian phone book. in this crowd following the priest with incense and choir books would inevitably be half a dozen of our relatives, with whom we would mingle once the service broke up. it would be hot. and my sister and I would weigh down the average age by about twenty years.

then mom would turn to the family headstones — or assign one of us — to clean them up and water any nearby plants. over the years a lot of family has come and gone, so there’s a lot of graves, and cleaning them all would take a lot of trips to the water pump. but once done, one of our cousins would do the same again, because she would have brought a watering can too and what the hell, why not? and then we’d all break for the cars that brought us there, and we would drive down Ridge Road into Griffith, past a Taco Bell outpost that helped inform my opinion of that fast food chain, to a restaurant called Jedi Garden.

I don’t know if Jedi Garden is still there, but I was always fascinated by it when we lived nearby in Griffith in the early nineties. when I was ten, I assumed it was Star Wars-affiliated, or boasted a Star Wars motif. we never chanced to go there until years later — visiting the nearby cemetery on memorial days — but when we did, I discovered that it had nothing to do with a galaxy far, far away. it was just a Greek-owned restaurant; the kind of place where you can order anything under the sun, where there will be local business advertisements on the paper placemats and where there will be a pie case near the register.

that’s fine. I love those restaurants.

so then we’d pile back into our cars, and split for other responsibilities and appointments. more often than not, this was our chariot:

and we’d go to the next cemetery, which I think is called Calumet Park and is on Garfield Street way down in Merillville. but there is no immediate way to get there. there are lots of lights and turns, and a running tour of suburban Lake County, Indiana on a federal holiday.

mom doesn’t drive fast. she doesn’t have the constitution for that bullshit, and for the most part, I agree. the stress that comes with navigating crowded streets just a little bit faster than usual isn’t worth it. as such, cruising down to the next cemetery were kinda leisurely affairs. it’s not like you get to the bottom of anything during these drives, like there were any great philosophical debates. but they were, I think, moments of content. those graves were always there. they’re there right now. the sun was always shining. the incense the priest carried was always potent. Jedi Garden was always busy. I could count on this trip.

Calumet Park is a big-ass cemetery, large enough that you can’t easily see the borders from its center. it has a man-made pond, a mausoleum, and well-mantained asphalt drives. when you enter on memorial day, the staff will have set up a prominade of large American flags, and at the gate there will be teenagers handing out maps and a brief schedule of services at the cemetery chapel.

mom — or whoever was driving — would inevitably get lost for a minute in the tiny maze of roads, before coming around an easy curve and finding the landmark, the water pump, that says grandma and grandpa Drozda are buried nearby.

grandma and grandpa Drozda died in late 1950s and early 60s, respectively, and did not head up as congealed a family unit as the other side of the tree did. as such, these are the only two markers to find, and they take a little bit of time to locate. they are small, lay flat on the ground, and are packed in among many other headstones.

we would clean the markers. we would linger for five minutes. we’d comment on the heat. then we’d climb back into the car, and head for home.

I imagine that’s where I would be buried, out there with my ass hanging out into the traffic on Ridge Road. I don’t mean to be morbid, and I certainly don’t plan on it happening any time soon. but should I be unfortunate enough to step in front of a bus, that is where they will plant me.

and that’s okay, I won’t be around to complain about it. as far as I’m concerned you could preserve me, put my husk in a museum and use me as an explanation to generations of schoolchildren of how homo sapiens lived in the mid-Atlantic in the early millenium. “once a week, the American bachelor would hunt and gather at a Safeway. to save his resources he would use a club card.”

but in any case, leave me a marker somewhere. it’s not the bones we’re visiting, but it’s the markers we’re cleaning, the symbols of decades of relationships, of trust, friendship, love, family, and of the shitty human emotions too, of anger, of prejudices. they are symbols of all the shit that makes us who we are. people hug headstones. have you ever seen that? when they do, they are hugging everything about that person. that’s how I read it, anyway.

yes, anyway. happy memorial day. it’s gonna be a hot one. visit your family, if you can, wherever they’re interred. and if you can’t, take a moment, pour a sip out on the concrete, and call the family that you’ve got with you now. we all got a place with someone somewhere, even if we’re far removed from it now. it’s gonna be a good summer.