Flowers for Decoration Day

There is a very short and magical period in the Bluegrass where, if you are a gardener, all is right with the world. For me, that time is right now. The aching heat of summer has not yet engulfed us; the frenetic activity associated with the vegetable garden has not yet begun; the nights are still cool; and the light at the end of the day on the tree canopy makes my heart break with its loveliness. Yes, there are weeds to pull (many), and my war against the morning glory vines continues, but for now, I find tranquil peace in my small garden.

My homemade trellis (made up of old floorboards) and my favorite clematis.

On May 27, 1936, my great-great grandmother, Anne Kenney Prewitt wrote in her daily diary, “If one would like to see Kentucky at its best he should see it now, trees in full leaf, blue grass beautifully green.”

And the next line illustrates the still-sharp mind of a woman born in 1847 and who ran her own farm after her husband died unexpectedly in 1908. “In a few days, the blue grass will begin to form seeds which are borne on stems and detract much form its beauty, but until a few years ago, was one of the farmers’ most remunerative crops.”

Blue grass seed cultuvation once played an important role in many a Kentucky farmer’s operation. Here, a blue grass seed stripper in Nicholas County, Kentucky. Circa 1938; photograph from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture records.

Gardening was on my mind this weekend, as I headed to the cemeteries with one of my sisters and our father. A brass bucket carried our Felco hand pruners, the dandelion fork, gloves, while Daddy carried the shovel. I had braved Lowe’s on Saturday morning to assess  the flats of annuals, and after much deliberation, picked a series of bright, colorful plants that should fare well all summer (provided the cemetery folks don’t mow them down).

The sun came and went while we wandered about our kinfolk.

I come by my love of gardening naturally, from both my mother and father. Growing up on a farm further reinforced the urge to tend the soil, and in this mad, mad world, I find the faith and hope that a gardener must possess to be an anchoring and calming tool.

I don’t write about my garden often. When I first started this blog, I wrote about the garden I created at the first house I owned, and our family tradition of Decoration Day and visiting cemeteries has also been a topic I’ve visited.

I am really into clematis right now…

I would rather be outside, tending to  both my garden and my soul, than sit in front of the computer writing about the garden. But sometimes, especially this year, I want to stop and realize that not only is the perfect time for gardening, it is a precious time for me. I am lucky enough to still have my parents, whom I cherish so much. My sisters and their children bring me incredible joy, and my own small family, with a baby girl and a husband who makes me laugh everyday, means the world to me.

My grandmother’s primroses, blooming in April, were a big hit with the crowd hanging out on the sheet.

All of this is heightened by Decoration Day, when we leave the farm, drive through town, and arrive at our first stop, Machpelah Cemetery. Brushing the dry grass clippings from the stones, we first have to cut back the yellowing jonquil leaves to make room for the flowers, and then there is some studied deliberation about what flowers Miss Pat would like, and how should we arrange the plants for Tishmama.

Roses climb an arched trellis in my garden.

We used to take fresh flowers from the farm, making arrangements in conical shaped metal containers that stuck in the ground. Our springs are too warm now, and the mock orange and peonies bloom almost a full month before Memorial Day. So we plant instead.

Anne Kenney, who was described on her 90th birthday as “one of the loveliest and most intellectual women of the old regime of this county.”

Anne Kenney mused about the weather and its impact on the flowers intended for the cemetery in this entry from May 29, 1936,  as she noted that her youngest daughter’s “supply off flowers is exhausted and her roses were killed to the ground so she none for decoration day. ..We will have to depend on Pattie [another daughter, and my great-grandmother] for flowers for decoration. She has a large and rich flower garden and gives it her personal attention.”

Siberian iris and more roses compete with a with very large metal dragonfly for space.

I was delighted to see an op-ed about Decoration Day in the Lexington Herald-Leader the other day. One of the recent social media themes focused on the lost meaning of Memorial Day – that it is a day to honor and remember those who gave their life for this country in military service. But the beauty of the Decoration Day  tradition I’ve inherited is that while we mourn, we also celebrate the lives that defined our lost family members.

We always get a small American flag to place on my grandfather’s grave – though he returned home from World War I, his experiences in France forever changed him. While I am humbled by the sacrifice of servicemen and women, our trips to the cemetery are an exercise not only in solemnity, but also in the comfort of memories and stories.

We may not have the same traditions as the Appalachian Decoration Day, but we remember all of our loved ones. Grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, my father’s sister who died as a baby – people whose lives ended decades before my birth, but through our trips, year after year to the cemetery, I’ve come to know. The continuity of what we do connects me to Anne Kenney, to Miss Pat, to Uncle Eugene, to Sallie Dawson Brother. It connects me, and like gardening, gives me hope for the future.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Joberta Wells says:

    Lovely memories!

  2. Daniel Prater says:


    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thank you!

Comments are closed.