25 May 2009

Memorial Day

As a child of divorce, my holidays were divided between maternal and fraternal families--the Martins and the Foxes. For example, the Fourth of July was unalterably a maternal holiday spent either with the Martin clan down in the black earth area of Southern Illinois known as "Little Egypt" or with my mother and stepfather fishing and eating hot dogs, pork & beans, and "roastin' ears" on Scot Jimmy's Island in the Mississippi river channel a few miles south of Alton.

But, Memorial Day was always a Fox holiday. And, it had a script that was followed year-after-year up until the time that many of the players had either died or became too frail to continue, which coincided with my entry into the teen years.

Imagine, if you will, the curtain rising on a gathering of people at Valhalla cemetary. Myra Fox, my grandmother, her sister Alberta and her husband H.G., my uncle Dexter (Deck) and his wife Sherry, and some years my aunt Dorothy would come in from Kansas City, and my father Allan and stepmother Kay, and as an infant and toddler, my brother Chris, and of course me, your narrator. Graves were visited, tears were shed, flowers were left behind after whispered memories of events and times spent with those now removed from caring.

Then, we would all pile into cars for the trek to Alberta's (Aunt Bate) large white Victorian with black wrought iron fence at the corner of State Street and McPherson in Alton where we would gather in the back yard for croquet, lemonade and sugar cookies while the meal was being prepared inside. Depending on the weather, there might be enough of a nip in the air for a light jacket, but usually it was pleasant and warm and occasionally you could hear in the distance the mournful horns of the riverboats making their way through the locks.

But, let us hasten to the meal, as it was, in many ways the purpose of the day--the Foxes were, and, I suppose, still are serious eaters! And after all, one can get just so far on lemonade, sugar cookies, croquet and adult conversation about world affairs or the time that the mysterious uncle Dirk Slaten disappeared--probably got drunk and fell into one of the quarries in Grafton, according to my father.

Always. Each year. It was de riguer I tell you, we had pot roast. A good honest, Methodist, Midwest, belt-loosening, sort of pot roast that was cooked to succulent, tender perfection with potatoes, carrots, celery and onions basted in their own juices. Several boats of gravy made from the roast pan drippings, grandma Myra's Porter House rolls (often attempted by others since-but, never ever matching her yeasty melt-in-the-mouth perfection), creamed pearl onions, tossed garden salad, chilled radishes, green onions, cauliflower dripping in melted butter, sliced tomatoes, pickled beets, and a large bowl of ambrosia.

Desert would be pie or cake with fresh churned ice cream or strawberry shortcake piled high with freshly whipped heavy cream.

After desert and coffee, and the dishes were cleared, there would be more talk and memories of those who had gone before, and usually, if it were early enough, another round of coffee and some sort of game. The TV remained off, and if the radio was on it was tuned to one of the network symphony stations.

We didn't barbecue, drink beer, have blaring music, or arguments and divide up by generations. We came together as family and enjoyed the company of each other and whatever sibling or familial rivalries, jealousies or misunderstandings might have existed were never in evidence.

That is either how it was, or how I remember it. Either way, I think we've lost something along the way.

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