I have very fond memories of memorial day, or decoration day as we often called. We prayed the peonies and iris would bloom in time to make bouquets. My aunt and I would carefully pick the blossoms, put them in bunches, and place them in large buckets of water. Next we’d load them into the car trunk and off we’d go to the cemeteries to put them on the graves. She’d tell me stories about her various relatives and I’d listen in rapt attention.
Following is the first of a three part story about my grandfather and his special remembrance of my grandfather, his divorced wife.
Clyde might as well have been an empty heat shimmer or artificial flower bouquets left at the grave sites on Memorial Day. No one thought he would mourn, let alone be seen at the cemetery, but there he was, alone, in a blue seersucker suit, straw hat in hand. He’d walked over from his house. The one he moved to in 1946 with his new wife after divorcing Mary. Now fifty-three years later, she returns to her hometown to be buried.
Clyde could have seen the cemetery from his house, but he felt he needed to be here. As he was watching, Clyde didn’t notice Joe, the cemetery groundskeeper, until he spoke. “Morning, Clyde. Why aren’t you there with the family?”
He’d been satisfied standing alone with his thoughts. Clyde was a politician, and words flowed out of his mouth like water over a cliff. “Morning, Joe. This is my kid’s day to mourn. I gave up the right to mourn her when we divorced.”
Taking a pipe from his back pocket, Joe stomped it on the sole of his boot, got rid of any loose tobacco, and then blew through the stem to make sure it was clear. As he took out his pack of Prince Albert to pack the pipe, Joe spoke. “Shouldn’t you be there to support your family? I know you keep in touch.”
Joe struck a match, let it flare a minute, then sucked the flame into the pipe bowl. When it was lit, he waved the match to put out the flame, dropped it on the gravel, and crushed it with his boot. Joe moved his eyes from Clyde to the funeral, finally settling on Clyde. Joe gently puffed and Clyde spoke through the aromatic smoke surrounding him. “I can’t change what I did. Ethel is now my wife, and though I think of Mary fondly, after the divorce, she was just a woman I had once known.”
Joe took the pipe out of his mouth, blew a smoke ring, and then responded. “Well…” He drew this out as if he were thinking while he talked. “Clyde, you’re still a father, a grandfather, and great-grandfather. Doesn’t that give you some responsibility?”
Clyde fanned himself with his hat while he and Joe turned to the funeral. Clyde spoke, “ They’re on their own. I nurtured them as kids. Mary and I didn’t divorce until they were grown.”
“That still doesn’t tell me why you’re not over there.”
Joe took another puff, looked at the pipe bowl, exhaled the smoke, and then turned to Clyde. “If you’re not going to be part of the mourners, if you’re not going to talk to your family, if you’re not going to give any of them a hug, a kiss, a handshake, how come you’re standing here all duded up in the sun, gawking?”
Clyde wasn’t sure he knew the answer. Joe took out another match to relight his pipe, so Clyde had time to think about his answer. “I guess it’s about the responsibility you mentioned. I still feel responsible for their grief.”
Joe took the pipe out of his mouth and, holding it by the bowl, pointed it at Clyde. “They’d be grieving with or without you.”
“I can’t really explain it, Joe. They need their time to grieve, and I need mine. You see, the kids didn’t think I respected Mary when she was alive. Charles and Esther came early in the marriage. I was still farming, only dipping my hand in the politics around Weldon, but the marriage was not good by the time Cecile and Millie came along.”
“But I remember you and Mary as happy. My wife and me’d come over to play cards, strum the banjo, Mary would make her famous apple pie, and I’d bring some of the sausages I’d made. Then you were absent a lot, gone on the road to some meeting or another. I don’t know when you had time for two more kids.”
“We covered it well, but if you’re willing to listen, I need to talk about Mary and me.”
“I’ve got nothing to do until those cars drive off.”
Clyde and Joe took a look at the mourners and decided there was time. “I wanted Mary with me. A politician wants visual support from his wife. Mary said she needed to stay at home with the kids, watch over the farm. I’d get angry. We’d have arguments. Esther and Charles were married. Cecil was in WWII, so I guess Millie got the worst of it. She blames me for the divorce.”
“Now…” Again, Joe drew the word out. “Clyde, you can be ornery as hell, and you can ramble on from your soapbox better than most. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.” Joe motioned with his pipe toward a bench under the oak tree. After they sat, Joe continued. “There were rumors about your womanizing on the road.”
Clyde was beyond denial, even if it did put him in a bad light. He was no longer involved in politics and didn’t worry about his image. “They were true. When I was on the road for a meeting or a convention, there were available women hoping to hook a politician. We all had a chance at being an elected official, most petty local politics, but one of us could make it to be governor, senator, or president. I couldn’t resist the urge. I strayed.”
The funeral was breaking up, but no one had gotten into their cars. Satisfied he’d smoked out the pipe, Joe hit the bowl on his shoe again and put the pipe in his pocket. With his slow drawl, Joe spoke. “Well…now…Clyde, didn’t you think it would come back to bite you in the ass?”
“I didn’t care. I needed a woman on my arm, and if Mary wasn’t willing, I’d get another.”
“Same old Clyde, stubborn as a mule.”
Joe saw the mourners going to their cars, but he wanted to ask one last question. “Clyde, why did Mary move to Clinton when you divorced?”
“Mary was embarrassed to stay in Weldon. Everyone knew your business. If she moved to Clinton, she could invite the friends she wanted to see. I wouldn’t be around.”
“But Clinton is only five miles. We all go there to shop and catch up on gossip.”
“She never learned to drive. Without a car, living there was easier. I bought her a house. I didn’t want to see her walk the streets in Weldon either. If locals didn’t see her, I didn’t have to explain anything.”
As the cars started moving, Clyde and Joe stood. They watched the black hearse pull away with Reverend Jones. On the vinyl side, silver letters spelled Harrington Brothers, with a scroll below. Cars, with family and other mourners, followed. Their movements on the gravel drive covered Clyde and Joe with dust. Hat in hand, Clyde searched each passing car for eyes to look his way, confirm he’s more than a bystander. No one acknowledged his presence, no wave, no head turning to look back. They were off to Weldon Methodist Church for lunch. He didn’t think he should join them. Clyde thought he was as dead to his family as the wilted bouquets or the bodies beneath his feet, or was he feeling sorry for himself?