VEHICLES LINED the narrow gravel driveway, angled into the grassy ditch on one side and edging the roadway on the other.
Randy pulled our lawn chairs from the van and I tucked a fleece throw under my left arm, umbrella in hand as we headed toward the crowd gathering at the Cannon City Cemetery gate. Clouds the color of bruises threatened rain on this 60-some-degree Memorial Day afternoon in rural southeastern Minnesota.
But weather would not keep us from this annual commemoration honoring the war dead—a tradition begun some 100 years prior in this wind-swept rural cemetery bordered by fields and pasture. On this Monday, those here would also mark the sesquicentennial of this burial place where a year ago cows moved to the fenceline to watch my friend Lois bury her husband next to his parents and grandparents.
Randy and I have no family connection to this cemetery. But we have come here each Memorial Day for about the past five because we appreciate the grassroots simplicity of this event. Clustered under spruce and cedar among gravestones, attendees circle their lawn chairs to sing and to listen to patriotic and other readings and to the mournful playing of taps.
As I sat there, snugged under fleece and wishing I’d worn a stocking cap, I considered that my temporary discomfort was nothing compared to war. I remembered the stories my Korean War veteran father, an infantryman on the frontlines, shared of bone-chilling cold. Yes, my ears hurt. But in a short time, I would be back inside my warm home.
I am an observer. To my right, I watched a teenage boy grip a military star, American flag and white carnation with his left hand, bugle in his other hand, as the fierce wind threatened to yank all three away. Earlier, some attendees distributed flowers, provided by the Cemetery Association, to soldiers’ graves. That flower-laying tradition began 100 years ago with students from the nearby Cannon City School marching with floral wreaths to the cemetery.
This memorial service is so much about tradition—from recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance to singing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic to reading names of the 52 veterans buried here to recitation of In Flanders Fields.
As Jean Pederson recited the haunting poem of poppies blowing between crosses in a field in Belgium, long-time Cannon City resident Bob Lewis slipped a pot of poppies onto the grass next to Jean’s motorized scooter. He’d dug them from a patch in his yard. That symbolic gesture by this veteran nearly moved me to tears as I watched 10 orange poppies wend in the wind to words of war.
Near Jean, I noticed the word LOVE sparkling along the pant leg of a teenage girl. Love and war. War and love. We love our freedom enough to fight for it.
Yet, we always strive for peace, a message conveyed in a reading by two women: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with you.” Their words rose and fell with the wind, carried away—to the fields, the countryside, beyond, under a bruised sky.
© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
I apologize for the lack of current photos accompanying this story. I fell and broke my right shoulder recently so am unable to use my camera. I hope my words provide the visuals for you to see snippets of what I observed in Cannon City on Memorial Day.