Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name . . .
- Five lines from William Butler Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916
Today is Memorial Day 2011. That’s what they officially call it now. In some parts, it’s usually prefaced by the word “Huge” and followed by the word “Sale.”
My mother, born during the Great War, still calls it “Decoration Day”, and remembers the elderly relatives – women, mostly – who faithfully visited cemeteries to tidy up after the ravages of winter and to place flowers on the graves of the dead.
My grandmother’s sister Mame was one of those women. Every Decoration Day, Mame would gather her things together into a large brown paper bag and take the mid-morning city bus to the Catholic cemetery about four miles away from home. The bag contained her lunch, and along with it, some flowers, her grass clippers, a paintbrush and a small can of paint.
Mame always went to the cemetery alone on Decoration Day. She never asked for company, help or even a ride. This was Her Job and everyone in the family knew and respected that. More than seventy years old, Mame had been doing her annual Decoration Day ritual longer than anyone could remember.
The bus stopped across the street from the cemetery’s great stone gates just long enough for Mame and her bag to get off. From there she walked. First, there was the quarter mile stretch along Cemetery Avenue, past the monument company’s office, past the florist’s greenhouses and past the cemetery’s main office. From there, her route took her past the old receiving vault that was used in earlier times when the ground was too frozen for men to dig winter graves by hand. Then she walked uphill for another half mile, along the winding roads to her two family plots far in the back.
The Redmond plot was marked with a large granite stone that had been purchased shortly after her father’s death in 1901. Mame’s mother Mary Ann Horan Redmond and her father Joseph Redmond were buried there, along with eight of her brothers and sisters. A few hundred yards away was the Horan plot, where Mame’s mother’s parents, Martin Horan and Margaret Buckley Horan, were buried with some of their own children.
After placing a few cut flowers from her bag on top of the Redmond headstone, Mame set to work. She clipped the grass around the stone where she knew the lawnmower men pushing their old-fashioned reel mowers would never try to reach. She picked up the fallen twigs and branches and put them in neat piles along the cemetery’s back fence.
Finally, she opened her can of paint. It was silver-colored metal paint, and just the thing to give a fresh look to the small open-mesh metal bench that was part of the Redmond family plot. It was also just the thing to freshen up the metal planter urns that flanked the Redmond stone on either side. In about six weeks’ time, Mame would return with geraniums for those planters.
That bench and those urns are gone now, removed by the cemetery management as hazards to the men who operate the cemetery’s modern industrial-strength lawn mowing equipment.
Back in the 1950s, Decoration Day was about getting cemetery things fresh again, a kind of rebirth and resurrection of memories of dead men.
When her painting was done, Mame sat down on the grass and ate her lunch. Then, she moved on to the Horan plot and repeated the clipping and the tidying up. The Horan plot took much less time, since the old marble stone was smaller and there was nothing to paint there.
In late afternoon, she began her trek down the hill to the bus stop for her return trip home, her Decoration Day job complete.
Mindful of the origins of this day of remembrance, Mame would no doubt have wanted to tidy up and decorate the grave of her grandfather James Redmond, a black-haired man with grey eyes that she had never met. However, she could not take the city bus to his grave; it was much too far away.
Her grandfather had been a Civil War soldier. James Redmond joined the 43rd New York Volunteer Infantry as a private in 1861 and was assigned to Company C. His wife Ellen had died the year before, and he left his two young children, 11 year old Joseph and 4 year old Catherine, in the care of his brother-in-law Michael Conley until his return from the war. At least that was his plan.
However, things rarely go as we hope or as we plan, and so it was with James Redmond.
On May 6th 1864, James Redmond was captured while fighting in Virginia, at what is now known as the Battle of the Wilderness. From there, he was sent as a prisoner of war to Camp Sumter, Georgia. Camp Sumter was its formal military name.
History calls it by its more familiar one: Andersonville.
Andersonville was a prison built in a hurry, on the cheap and without actual barracks, the Union prisoners left largely to their own devices for shelter and clothing. Although built to contain less than 10,000 men, it held nearly four times that number in the worst of times. Food was a luxury, and always in short supply. The only water came from a small stream that flowed through the camp. Medical care was virtually non-existent. The prisoners wore only the clothes they had on when they were captured.
During its short 14 month span as a prison camp, Andersonville held more than 9,000 New Yorkers. Of those New Yorkers, nearly 2,500 men died, mostly of starvation and scorbutus, as scurvy was then called.
James Redmond was one of those men, sick with scurvy and slowly starved to death. Whatever fitful and feverish dreams he might have had of his youth in County Kildare or of his own children, they all came to a sudden and painful end about four months after his arrival at Andersonville. This could not have been the end he had imagined when he left Ireland years earlier, having then survived the Great Hunger. How could a man starve to death in the land of plenty?
James Redmond died far from home surrounded by strangers on 6 October 1864 and was buried without ceremony in a trench grave shoulder to shoulder with others who died around the same time. Buried without coffins and reduced to little more than flesh-covered skeletons from lack of food, the Union dead took up little room in their makeshift Georgia cemetery. Years later, those trench graves became part of what is now a national cemetery, marked with row upon row of simple white markers, tightly set and almost touching, each bearing a name, a state abbreviation and a number.
His grave number is, and will forever be, Number 10467, in the Andersonville National Cemetery in Andersonville, Macon County, Georgia, now Zip Code 31711. For some folks, those last three digits – 711- is a “lucky” number combination. Not so for James Redmond.
Had Mame been able to travel to Andersonville by bus, she would have surely decorated her grandfather James Redmond’s grave on Decoration Day.
For Mame, Decoration Day would have been Private James Redmond’s special day, and, after all, Decoration Day was Her Special Job.
When they ended their late-night newscasts last night with a cheery “Have a great Memorial Day holiday tomorrow, everyone!”, the perky young newsreaders on the local TV station demonstrated that they don’t quite get it. Memorial Day is not about mattress sales, cookouts and the start of lazy, hazy summer. It’s not even about parades.
It’s a day about dead men, many of whose lives came to a sudden, brutal and unplanned end in horrific circumstances that, even a few years earlier, they could have scarcely imagined.
On this Decoration Day 2011, and in particular in memory of my grandmother’s grandfather James Redmond, and all the men who suffered fates like his – I offer the lines from Yeats above and this simple Irish remembrance:
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. (“May his soul be on God’s right side”)