Thursday, May 25, 2006

Chinese Memorial Day

Chinese Memorial Day

Memorial Day was always important to mom. I never refused her when she asked me to go with her to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit, although I certainly dreaded it. The dedication took an entire day in good weather, and let's face it, for a kid that's a major sacrifice! But, from the somber face and quietly spoken tone of her voice, I knew it was a serious undertaking (pardon the pun).

Forest Lawn Cemetery, situated on Van Dyke, south of McNichols

The day would start very early. Being an old-style, home-grown superstitious Chinese woman that she was, mom would not purchase flowers in advance as it would mean she would have to store them in her car or at home -- that would be inviting bad luck! We would load up the car with a shovel, pick axe, butcher knife, rake, broom, and watering can. Yup, we had enough crap to dig our own grave, it was so embarrassing. It's no wonder they made a special section at Forest Lawn just for the Chinese. We must have been quite a sight and scared the white people half to death with all that stuff!

Front gates of Forest Lawn Cemetery

So, on a bright, sunny, beautiful day, we would head south on Van Dyke, just south of McNichols (Six Mile Road) in Detroit. There was a greenhouse right across the street from Forest Lawn on Van Dyke where mom would buy her flowers. She would take an inordinate amount of time selecting flowers befitting the gravesites of our relatives. So, being a little girl, I would glance around the greenhouse and gardens, looking at all the pretty flowers and not being much help to mother at all. I prefer to think she was grateful I just didn't bother her and allowed her to focus on the task at hand.

Chinese Section 38

We drove around to the backside, Section 38, the Chinese Section, where the railroad tracks rattles noisely and don't let the dead rest in peace and where a factory shoulders a nearby fence. Dad and mom got out their tools and memory lead them to the obscure locations, as the meager tombstones lay flat on the ground obscured by crabgrass, grass clippings, weeds, overgrown grass, and dirt.

The mood got more melancholy as we approached the gravesites of my grandmother and my sister, Judy. Without uttering a word, father and mother would kneel down and tend to the gravesites. First, clearing the overgrowth, then pulling the weeds, then carefully cleaning the dirt from the tombstones. Diligently stepping around the gravesite, purposefully stepping over the tombstone they would dig a small hole and plant the fresh flowers which mother carefully selected. The flowers would be given a good dose of water after planting. Mother and father would step back and view their handiwork in quiet satisfaction. Sometimes, they would engage in quiet conversation with grandmother and Judy.

Marble sign in Chinese Section

Every year it would be the same routine. Except as I grew older, I began to understand the importance of honoring our ancestors. When Judy died, she hadn't reached her second birthday, and I was four years old. Judy had a congenital heart defect, and was termed a "blue baby." Despite the fact she's been gone for 50 years, I think about what she would have been like. Grandmother was special to me too. She's been gone for 38 years but I think about her often. Grandmother was quiet and accepting. I only met her when she was 70 years old, I was 10 then. She only lived another 5 years before passing on. I loved her and became very close to her in those few years. But her life was somewhat of a mystery to me. So, I read Chinese history books to connect with my folks.

A Daughter of Han, The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman, By Ida Pruitt,
From the Story Told Her by Ning Lao T'ai-t'ai

I especially enjoy reading books about China in the late 1800's to early 1900's. It helps me understand the difficult living conditions my parents and my grandparents went through. It gives me an appreciation of their courage to leave everything. Hardship is what drove them from their homeland, their familiar surroundings, their family, to endure a different kind of hardship in America. That is discrimination...and yet, they endured, they thrived, they prospered. History helps keeps things in perspective.

So, on Memorial Day, May 29th, 2006, as America honors their fallen soldiers, many Chinese-Americans will take the opportunity to honor their ancestors on Tomb Sweeping Day with spring prayers, or Ching Ming or Qingming which, literally translated, means "Clear and Bright." My husband's family, whose traditions are further deep-seated in religious practices than mine, go further in filial piety and perform the Hungry Ghost Festival rituals, just for good measure!


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