There is no doubt where my family will be on Memorial Day.
Each Memorial Day, the Nelson clan gathers at 10 a.m. at a small, picturesque cemetery overlooking Cache Valley. In the northern Utah town of Millville, we lay flowers on Nelson graves and pose for a family photo. Afterward, we travel to the nearby farm of cousins Mike and Peggy Nelson for a potluck picnic and an afternoon of activities.
It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. This holiday is a time to remember our dead and reconnect with the living.
As a child, I helped my grandfather Harry Nelson cut his prized roses and snapdragons on what he called “Decoration Day.” He’d lovingly arrange the flowers in a makeshift vase (a tin can covered in aluminum foil). The flowers were headed to the graves of his parents, John and Hanna Nelson, immigrants who settled in Millville in 1901 after joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Sweden. Each year, the holiday plays out the same as it did then. However, now decades later, Harry’s grave receives the flowers, along with the graves of aunts, uncles, cousins, and my parents, Claron and Jennie Nelson. There is another difference. Our family has blossomed. My cousins and I are now grandparents who come with John and Hanna’s great-great-great-grandchildren who chase among the headstones and participate in the holiday’s family fun.
My uncle Richard John Nelson, 92, is a retired physician. Richard, the only surviving grandson of John and Hanna and son of Harry and Eudora Nelson, cannot remember when the tradition began, but it was at least 70 years ago. The only years that he’s missed were when he was out of state for his medical training.
When he was young, Richard would help his grandmother gather her peonies, irises, snowballs, and lilacs for the single Nelson grave in the cemetery—the grave of Richard’s older brother, Quentin, who was 10 months old when he died from whooping cough. Back then the cemetery visits were not a planned family trip, but they evolved over time as more Nelson headstones began to dot the hillside.
Kendell Nelson, Richard’s son, has always felt the holiday was a time for reflection and for a reminder of the family’s Swedish heritage and the sacrifices that these grandparents made so that the family could live in this beautiful country and state. He feels that we need to honor those who have meant so much to us over the years and who taught us so much about life.
Joan Nelson Creer, the daughter of Harry’s son Don, would agree that the Memorial Day reunion is a day when members of the family feel especially close to their ancestors. She has always felt the same way as the rest of the family about honoring the grandparents.As children, my cousins and I eagerly anticipated Memorial Day fun. We would eat a potluck dinner that often included great-aunt LaRue’s famous shrimp pasta salad and Aunt Ettalue’s chocolate wacky cake. We gorged ourselves on Orange Crush and root beer from my dad’s cooler, went horseback riding if great-uncle Herman had a horse that year, shot clay pigeons in the canyon, and visited with family members we didn’t see often enough.
Not too much has changed. We continue to offer the menus of the past, with different chefs, and we make certain to include time for skeet shooting.
We all look forward to this year’s event because family members do not see each other as much now. This year, some of Harry’s descendants will be absent on May 30. Joan is serving as a senior missionary in Birmingham, England, with her husband, David, although she’ll be home in time for next year’s holiday. Several other descendants are serving missions or are away for education. Others who live out of state cannot make the trip, and there is always someone who has to work.
But even if we will miss a few family members, there will be a crowd.
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