Peonies for our fallen heroes

Friday, May 28, 2004

I'll bet there are quite a few of us who remember when Memorial Day was called Decoration Day.

And I'll bet I'm not the only one who grew up thinking Decoration Day got its name because that's when we went to the cemetery and "decorated" the graves.

The cemeteries I knew as a child weren't very fancy. Most of them were on hilltops surrounded by scrub brush and timber. Many of the old graves had large rocks as markers. Or cedar trees. Knowing who was buried where relied on the memories of relatives.

Decoration Day was for sprucing up your ancestors' graves and putting wreaths and flowers on the graves.

I remember how touched I was the first time I saw miniature flags placed on some of the graves. When I was older I realized the flags were tributes to fallen soldiers. That's when I started to understand the significance of Memorial Day.

The flower I associate with Memorial Day is the peony. This is the time of year when peonies are supposed to be in full boom. This year's peonies were a mite early, thanks to the long, mild spring.

There is nothing quite so resplendent as a Mason quart jar holding a couple of dozen peonies -- white, pink, red -- nestled against a tombstone.

I was born right at the end of World War II. My first inkling of war came as we stood on the playground at Shady Nook School and watched the crew members of squadron after squadron of bombers fly over -- headed for Korea, we were told.

Too many, it seems in my youthful memory, came back to those hilltop cemeteries.

The first time I heard "Taps" at a cemetery I had to run off where the cars were parked to hide my tears. I still get tears when the bugler's plaintive notes silence the birds in the air, but I don't hide anymore.

What makes me saddest of all is that anyone has to lay down his life in a war. What an enormous burden it must be for God to choose who dies on the battlefield and who gets to return to the arms of loved ones. It's chores like this that make me glad I'm not God.

Sometime during this long holiday weekend, I hope you'll take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices so many men and women have made for us. I hope you'll stop to look -- really look -- at all those flags. And I hope you'll take a minute to admire the peonies.

There are so many fallen heroes who can't.

I want to say how proud I am of Scott City for choosing lilacs as the town flower. A special effort is underway to get lilac bushes planted all over town. What a sight that will be in a few years.

Not only are lilacs a feast for the eyes, there is something extraordinary about the way they smell.

Someone in my memory, probably a teacher -- Sunday school, piano, high school English -- wore a lilac-based cologne. Every time I smell lilacs, I think I should be memorizing a Bible verse or practicing something in the John Thompson piano book or parsing a sentence.

All of those, by the way, are good memories.

After all the bird stories you've endured this year, it may interest you to know there is now a resident cat at the Sullivan homestead.

A cat? With all those birds?

I'll have plenty of cat stories for you. You'll see.

Early reports indicate the squirrels have met their match. So far, the cat is worth her weight in gold.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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