It is Memorial Day weekend. I always think about those who died while protecting America, and I also find my thoughts going to friends and loved ones who are no longer with us. As I near my hundredth birthday, the lists of names have become long.
With American Legion ceremonies in the cemeteries and the decorating of graves, this can be a somber time. Over the years, though, it has also included a lot of fun for our family. A story my son Bob published in 1988 in a Seattle newspaper tells about some of our Memorial Day traditions. I’ve asked him to include it here.
For as long as I can remember, my family has gathered in Grandview Cemetery in the bluffs west of Sidney for a Memorial Day picnic and, as my Grandmother Lucretia Birkby says, to be with the dead relatives.
There are a couple of picnic tables along one side of the cemetery where several dozen cousins, aunts and uncles, parents, and children visit while eating fried chicken and watermelon. Lucretia and my great aunt Mildred remind us who is buried where and why, and then the long afternoon would stretch before us without clear direction. Then one spring a cousin brought a bat and ball.
The obvious place for us kids to play was a corner of the cemetery free of tombstones. The field of play was an open and grassy, and a hard-hit ball could roll all the way to the edge of the woods.
At first the teams were short-handed since many of the picnickers were still too young to play and others were of an advanced age that relegated them to lawn chairs in the shade of walnut trees bordering the first-base line.
In the years that followed, though, the crop of Birkby babies matured and took their places in the lineup. Some of the elders passed away and were moved from their lawn chairs into graves in fair territory. Tombstones sprouted in left field, right field, and in a loose cluster around second base. Time and fertility, maturity and morality crowded the grounds with grandchildren and granite.
For a batter, it was like hitting in a pinball machine. Sharp grounders ricocheted off stones with such velocity that fielders were lucky just to get their gloves up for protection. Sometimes a batter sprinting toward first base was tagged by his own line drive rebounding off a grave marker and winging him for a self-imposed out.
Hitters responded by lofting fly balls over the heads of the infielders, tempting them to scurry backwards only to be cut down at the knees from behind by a tombstone that a year before had not been there.
Sliding into second became nearly impossible after the survivors of an elderly uncle erected a pillar of stone in their plot. Base runners found it necessary to hurdle a distant cousin’s stone which, without the least consideration for the effect it would have on the sport, showed up one spring directly between third base and home.
Gradually, though, the game has lost its luster. The number of players declines as youngsters become adults and move too far from home to attend the Memorial Day picnics. Each spring, one or two more of the lawn chairs stand empty, and the resulting proliferation of gravestones makes it all but impossible to hit a ground ball.
In fact, the games might cease all together. Lucretia announced that she has purchased a plot in the Sidney cemetery. She assures us that she has not had a falling-out with the relatives buried in Grandview.
What worries her is the game. From her lawn chair, she has watched enough baseball to know what Grandview has in store for her and she does not relish the prospects. "I’ll just end up being some base out there," she told us, "and I don’t believe I want that at all."
My mother-in-law Lucretia Birkby often brought homemade potato salad to our family picnics on Memorial Day. Hers tasted better than any other I’ve eaten before or since, so one day I asked her to give me the recipe. "And how do you prepare your homemade dressing for the salad?" I asked her.
"Oh, I haven’t made that for years," she replied. "I take a shortcut now and use ready-made mayonnaise that I mix with some whipped topping I get at the store."
So here is Lucretia’s potato salad recipe, modernized by her to make it quick and easy.
LUCRETIA’S POTATO SALAD
6 potatoes, peeled and diced
1 small onion, diced
1/4 cup chopped sweet pickles
1 Tablespoon sugar
4 hard-cooked eggs, diced
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup mayonnaise or salad dressing
1/4 cup whipped topping (like Cool Whip)
Any cooked potatoes can be used for potato salad, but Lucretia liked to boil small red potatoes with their skins on, peel them while they were still warm, and then dice them into a bowl.
Add remaining ingredients, first combining the salad dressing and the whipped topping. Makes about 8 servings.