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Decoration Day, the Indy 500 and Ham Salad

As I was making the annual Memorial Day trek to the cemetery to place flags on the graves of my ancestors, I drove past a public access area to the Eel River just south of Liberty Mills, Indiana. It is just a place you can pull off the road to access the river. There was a group of people getting ready to launch kayaks for a journey down the river. This brought back a flood of memories for me. Not for kayaking, but this particular place was a common picnic spot for my family on Memorial Day when I was a child.

My grandpa always called it Decoration Day, probably because that’s how he knew it most of his life. Decoration Day began after the Civil War as a way to honor fallen Union soldiers. Mourners would decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers. May 30 was selected because flowers would be in bloom then. After WWI, observers began to honor the those who sacrificed their lives in all American wars, often calling it Memorial Day. Congress declared Memorial Day as a national holiday in 1971, designating the last Monday in May as the official day of observance. Today, it also happens to fall on May 30, the original Decoration Day.

For me, it was a day of multi-generation family members spending the day together. Along with my immediate family, my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins would pile into our multi-car caravan to various cemeteries in four different counties (Wabash, Huntington, Whitley and Wells Counties) in Northern Indiana. We would clean up the grave sites with hand-held grass clippers, place flowers on all the graves and add small American flags to those relatives that had served our country. I don’t have any direct relatives that died in battle, but we have a long history of military service.

As each grave was tended, one of my relatives would tell us who the person was and how they were related to us. One particular cemetery has multiple generations of my family. Some had lived long storied lives and some, such as my grandmother’s two sisters and one of her own children had died at birth. This is probably why genealogy is a hobby of mine now. I feel like I know all of these relatives that came long before me.

As we traveled from one cemetery to the next, the radio would be tuned to another Indiana tradition, the Indianapolis 500 race. The names I heard on the radio are now legends of the sport; Al Unser, AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti and my favorite, Johnny Rutherford. I had no idea why he was my favorite. I think I just liked the name. Everyone else seemed to have a favorite so I picked one too. We would listen to the commentary of the race throughout the day and would be anxious to see how the standings had changed once we got back in the car on the way to the next spot. Keep in mind, I had never seen a race, nor a race car in my life up to that point, let alone an Indy race car.

Since the public access to the Eel River at Liberty Mills was near one of the cemeteries, we would often pick that as our lunch spot. I don’t think there was even a picnic table there, we just used the tailgate of the station wagon and a few lawn chairs to set up our feast. My grandma’s ham salad was always a staple for these outings. I’m talking ham salad made from big chunk bologna, pickle relish and mayonnaise—on white bread. It was my absolute favorite. Paired with homemade potato salad, some potato chips and lemonade from a cooler, it was the perfect lunch. The water in the river was always shallow and we were allowed to wade in it. Someone would always wind up soaking wet. There was no change of clothes waiting, you would just have to wear it until it dried out or until we got home.

Although get-togethers with friends and family are commonplace during Memorial Day weekend, I feel the tradition of decorating the graves and placing flags is slowly going by the wayside. I loved seeing all the flags at the cemetery. You can always count on the VFW and American Legion to continually honor our veterans. It was also nice to see someone had already decorated my parent’s, grandparent’s and great-grandparent’s graves. I’m not sure who placed the decorations, but I’m sure it was one of the ones on those outings all those years ago. I don't even know who won the Indy 500 this year, but I may have to pick up some ham salad and a loaf of white bread today.

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